Food security in the Arctic

IN 1847, FOUR years after being stood down as lieutenant governor of Tasmania, Sir John Franklin died at the other end of the earth trying to find the Arctic's fabled North-West Passage. He and his crew were too proud to ask the local Inuit communities for advice. Like the Norse in Greenland some five hundred years earlier, they died partly because they would not accept that an indigenous people held the key to survival in the Arctic.

By the time Franklin had been immortalised for his intrepid but failed expedition, the Inuit had been living in their frozen homeland for millennia. They survived where many others perished because they adapted their diet and customs, their culture and even their language to this frozen and hostile yet resource-rich wilderness.

Inuit continue to survive in their northern homeland, but it has not been easy. Up until the middle of the last century, hunger and starvation were not uncommon during the long, dark winters, particularly for the more remote communities. As the Arctic became more accessible, after World War II, indigenous communities had greater access to reliable food supplies from the south, and the spectre of winter hunger started to disappear. But in its place have come other, more complex threats to Inuit food security and wellbeing, the product of decisions made far from the Arctic. The result is economic vulnerability, contaminated food and changes to the movement of the Arctic land and sea mammals – the source of traditional Inuit food.

While the Inuit survived independently in the Arctic for thousands of years, observing a passing parade of explorers and whalers, well-meaning missionaries and would-be settlers, their survival is now precariously linked to an outside world which has long held romantic images of – and grand ambitions for – the Arctic, and whose actions erode the means of Inuit survival. The lure of the Arctic persisted because the region is so close to the old and new powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but remained inaccessible due to its climate. Franklin and many others tried to find a passage through the region to save time transporting goods between the major trading nations – an ambition that has now almost been realised, not because of navigational success but because of the melting Arctic ice.


THERE ARE 160,000 Inuit across the Arctic: 48,000 in Alaska, 55,000 in Canada, the same again in Greenland and about 2,000 in Russia (Chukotka). Their homeland spreads from Greenland across the Arctic stretches of North America and over the Bering Strait to the eastern tip of Russia. They are a diverse but cohesive group working for unity despite different political and economic circumstances. In 1977, they formally expressed this unity by establishing the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a powerful player in international negotiations over matters affecting the Inuit.

To understand the significance of food security for the Inuit, we must recognise that food security isn't simply reliable access to nutritious food. It is linked to climate change, wildlife management, pollution and economic vulnerability – and to cultural security. According to ‘The Legal Protection of Subsistence: A Prerequisite of Food Security for the Inuit of Alaska' (Alaska Law Review, 2007): ‘food security goes beyond the mere satisfaction of physical needs – it integrates the social and cultural symbolism of food, which determines whatfood is and which foods are appropriate for human consumption...Inuit still partly derive their self-worth, individually and collectively, from traditions associated with hunting, fishing, and gathering. More than a mere means of obtaining the foodstuffs required for physical survival, these practices represent an important aspect of community integration. Activities related to subsistence represent an important foundation for the social and economic organization of Inuit communities.'

Remoteness, limited infrastructure, difficult climatic conditions and fluctuating prices for food commodities and oil combine to make food expensive and, at times, its quality questionable for many Inuit communities. Canada's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs conducted a survey of isolated northern communities in 2006 and 2007 to gauge the weekly cost of a nutritious diet for a family of four. The results showed that it was at least twice the amount that a family living in southern Canada would have to pay.

Families living in remote communities also have other high costs: fuel and related transportation expenses essential for hunting activities. At the same time, low income levels, limited job opportunities and widespread dependence on welfare payments mean there is insufficient money to cover basic food needs.

Nain, in Canada's north, encapsulates the challenges confronting small and remote settlements in the Arctic. With a population of just over 1100, Nain is the administrative capital of Nunatsiavut, the smallest of the four Canadian Inuit regions. The settlement was originally established by Moravian missionaries in 1771, attracting some of the nomadic Inuit to settle there, and is now the northernmost town of any size in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

There are no roads leading anywhere from Nain and the only year-round access to the town is by air. But there's no ground support, so landing is by visible aids only and when the rocky hill overlooking the town is shrouded in cloud, which is often, no plane can take off or land. For a couple of months in summer after the sea ice has melted, ships dock, providing employment to those who unload the cargo. There's a labradorite mine nearby which employs maybe fifty or so people; a fish-processing plant in previous years employed another fifty for three to six weeks, but even that looks increasingly unlikely – it's just not economical for the fishery owners.

Economic vulnerability is exacerbated by the environment. It costs C$800 a month to heat a house, so families move in together to save costs. Fuel is so expensive that it limits traditional hunting expeditions, which heightens reliance on store-bought foods. Alcohol consumption is the second highest in the province, second only to the capital, St John's, in Newfoundland. With alcoholism comes a raft of social and personal problems. But the basic services are pretty good for a town this size – the health clinic is more than adequate and its local service is supplemented with telemedicine facilities; there's a high school and being the administrative centre for Nunatsiavut brings kudos and a little employment. Voisey Bay, a nickel mine south-west of Nain, provides some employment while the Nunatsiavut government receives 5 percent of provincial revenues from the mine.


IN MAY 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species ‘throughout its range'. This decision was the outcome of a process which had seen environmental groups square off against the Inuit. Partway through the process, three American-based environment organisations, including Greenpeace, had instigated legal proceedings against the American Government for the delay in making a decision on whether to list the polar bear.

The polar bear is a cuddly global symbol of the threat posed by human-induced climate change. For the Inuit and anyone else who lives close to them, though, the polar bear is certainly not cuddly and it represents an important food source which local communities insist they manage sustainably.

While the listing is a domestic American matter, it has ramifications across the Inuit homeland exacerbated by the US proposal in 2008 that the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species upgrade the status of the polar bear to ‘most endangered'. The Americans' move has been celebrated by environmental groups as a positive step in their campaign to pressure the nation's government into changing its position on climate change. For the Inuit, this represents a further erosion of their capacity to manage the resources that have sustained them through the centuries. The Inuit had experienced this kind of foreign pressure before. In the 1980s, following a massive international campaign spearheaded by Greenpeace, the European Union banned the import of certain seal products. While viewed internationally as a victory for animal rights, and not directly aimed at Inuit hunting methods, its effect on indigenous communities in Greenland and northern Canada was disastrous. To its credit, Greenpeace, when made aware of the consequences of its action, apologised – but by then the suicide rate among young Inuit men had already surged.


IN 1962, RACHEL Carson published her groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which described for the first time the detrimental effects of organochlorine pesticides on the environment. Despite the grimness of her findings, there was some good news: the Arctic had escaped contamination. By the 1980s, this was no longer the case. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs), heavy metals and radionuclides had reached very high levels in the Arctic ecosystems. This surprised scientists, because the substances were produced and used in industrial regions far from the Arctic – in Europe, Russia, Canada and the US. The Inuit's once-pristine diet of marine mammals was now among the most contaminated in the world.

While POPs, which include chemicals such as DDT, are not manufactured or used in the Arctic, they end up and are trapped there, simply because it is colder than elsewhere. And POPs are lipophilic: they attach themselves to fatty tissues. Because the Inuit depend on whale blubber, seal meat and various oils, and because POPs quickly bio-accumulate up the Arctic food chain, Inuit women have seven to eight times more of these carcinogens in their breast milk than do women in Toronto or Sydney.

Thus commenced two decades of international lobbying by the Inuit – mostly through the ICC – to make the world aware of what was happening to their principal sources of food and to support other international efforts to combat pollution. One of the most important outcomes of this lobbying was the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, which 114 countries signed in 2001 and which came into force in 2004, the same year that Australia ratified it.

The global efforts have had some success and recent reports point to a slight decline in the levels of some contaminants in the Arctic environment. But studies are now showing that a number of contaminants, such as mercury and newly emerging POPs, are not decreasing. As temperatures rise in the Arctic, ice– and snow-locked mercury is being released and finding its way into the food web.

The choice for Inuit has been to eat and be damned, or not to eat and still be damned, because the marine-based diet has been steadily replaced by less-nutritious store-bought commodities which are increasingly contributing to health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Health authorities around the Arctic support continued consumption of the marine diet, but with a greater emphasis on those animals further down the food chain, such as fish.


ACCORDING TO THE United Nations Environment Program, the effects of climate change and the consequential effects on snow and ice are already being felt in small communities throughout the circumpolar north. Among the most significant, according to a 2007 UNEP report, are ‘health and nutritional concerns (related to the availability of country food) associated with changes in the abundance and migratory patterns of subsistence resources'.

This is reinforced by the observations of traditional Inuit hunters who have been reporting for two decades that major changes are occurring in the migratory habits of the marine and land mammals which form the bulk of traditional Inuit diets. Inuit hunters have adapted to these changes, but it now takes more time and more fuel to cover the distances needed to find traditional food sources. As ice coverage becomes more fragile and unpredictable, the risk of more hunting accidents grows.

Ironically, as food security for the Inuit is increasingly linked to the wider world, the future of the world's food supply has been entrusted to the security of the Arctic. In 2008, the Global Crop Trust Fund announced the establishment in Norway's Arctic regions of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – the only global back-up seed storage facility, popularly known as the Doomsday Vault – as insurance against the destruction of the world's crop seeds. Thanks to the Arctic permafrost, we can be sure that the seeds will be conserved, even in the event of electricity failure. But will the Inuit also be assured of long-term food security?



References and further reading

The Global Report on Snow and Ice, UNEP, 2007
Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic: SLiCA is a Sustainable Development initiative of the Arctic Council and is supported by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Saami Council, and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North. Indigenous peoples and researchers from the United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the indigenous peoples of the Kola Peninsula and Chukotka in Russia have contributed to SLiCA

Hunger in the Arctic: Food (in)Security in Inuit Communities, David Boult, Ajunnginiq Centre, 2004

‘Dietary transition and contaminants in the Arctic: emphasis on Greenland', Jens C. Hansen, Bente Deutch, Jon Øyvind Odland, Circumpolar Health supplement 2008-2

‘The legal protection of subsistence: a prerequisite of food security for the Inuit of Alaska', Sophie Thériault, Chislain Otis, Gérard Duhaime and Christopher Furgal; Alaska Law Review, 2007

‘Indigenous Peoples of Northern Russia: Anthropology and Health', Andrew Kozlov, Galina Vershubsky, Maria Kozlova; Circumpolar Health Supplements, 2001, no. 1

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Mariner Books, Boston, New York, 1962

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