We are accustomed to thinking of food security as a poor country’s problem, something for national governments and the United Nations to solve. But a week-long trip to Whitehorse with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation was a stark reminder of the food security challenges faced right here in Canada.
Listening at the first-ever Yukon Food Security Summit, organized by the Arctic Institute for Community Based Research in Whitehorse, and also during a visit to Carcross/Tagish First Nations, I heard three distinct dimensions of food security in the north emerge: traditional knowledge and cultures; modern technology and local food production; and poverty.
The traditional knowledge and culture emphasis was most clearly articulated by indigenous speakers. They spoke about projects to rebuild traditional food systems based on fishing, hunting, and gathering non-cultivated plants, together with projects to build greenhouses and equip mobile abattoirs, to install community freezers and gardens, and to stock food banks with wild foods.
The projects are in part about food security. But, just as importantly, they are about the revival of traditional knowledge, about cultural pride and recovery from political exclusion and territorial dispossession.
However vibrant these projects, traditional food cultures face big challenges. In the case of the Yukon, the traditional food base was sufficient to support the pre-contact population. Today, however, hunting and gathering grounds are profoundly disrupted by climate change, which is changing fish and animals’ migration routes and settlement patterns, and threatening species with extinction. Land claims, meanwhile, are still disputed, though the Yukon has agreements with most of its First Nations that the rest of Canada should learn from. Traditional food cultures are confronting larger and more urban populations and environmental pressures are increasing.
The second dimension speakers focused on was local food production and agricultural technologies adapted for the North. Projects include improving the nutrient content of poor soils and breeding programs to adapt crops for a shorter growing season. Some of the proponents were confident that the predicted warmer temperatures due to climate change in the Yukon would increase the range of crops that grow, though critics pointed out that the shortage of arable land remains a real hurdle.
Local production is also seen as a way to lessen the Yukon’s dependency on trucked-in food: in 2012, the only road south was cut off for days. Panic shopping and just-in- time inventories quickly left the shelves of local supermarkets bare and supplies had to be flown in.
The technologies being used are many, varied and ingenious. But local agriculture has its challenges, especially in marketing and distribution. As one farmer bluntly stated, she cannot grow quality food locally and compete on price with the food brought in by Wal-Mart. If cheap food is a food security objective for the Yukon, then food trucked in from the south will win out.
The Which brings us to the third dimension of Yukon food insecurity: poverty. Canada’s biggest source of food insecurity is access to affordable food. It is a bigger problem in the north, where food costs are higher than the rest of Canada, especially for fresh produce. One solution, discussed in Whitehorse and proposed by the national organization Food Secure Canada, is a national minimum income.
Imports from other parts of Canada will be part of the Yukon’s food system for the foreseeable future. But bringing in food is not without costs. It is expensive. It relies on a vulnerable transportation network. It can bring a choice of higher-quality foods, but also brings too many calories with little nutritional value. And it does nothing to renew local cultures.
All dimensions of food security are important. Over the week we ate haskap berries bred at the University of Saskatchewan to withstand cold temperatures and short growing seasons, wild salmon caught from the Yukon River, locally-grown potatoes and birch syrup. The food was a mix of locally-grown and imported, wild and cultivated with the latest technology. The Yukon is in a position to create a unique food culture and economy that serves everyone in the territory. Though it is vulnerable to climate change, it is rich in wildlife and populated by peoples with extensive local knowledge.
As I came away from the trip, I reflected that not only do parts of Canada share food security challenges akin to those in parts of the developing world—they share some of the same solutions, too.
Sophia Murphy is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia and holds a Trudeau and a Vanier scholarship. She is also a senior advisor on trade to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Minneapolis.