A Changing Narrative on Arctic Food Security – Part 1 | Polarjournal
Traditional arctic cuisine is experiencing a real facelift and renewed interest these days. Image : Aningaaq R. Carlsen/Visit Greenland

In a two-part article, guest author and Professor Doaa Abdel-Motaal discusses food security in the Arctic. Today, PolarJournal is publishing the first part about the Arctic as a food exporting region and the renaissance of traditional Arctic cuisine.

About 4 million people live in the Arctic Circle, with approximately 10% of them belonging to indigenous groups such as the Inuits, Samis, Aleuts, Athabascans and Gwich’in. The food security of Arctic inhabitants has long been seen as an unattainable goal, with the Arctic considered too cold to become a significant food producing region, and the traditional diets of local and indigenous people seen as incompatible with the values of modern food systems.  Organizations such as Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have long run campaigned against the hunting of seals, arguing that traditional Arctic food systems endanger the environment and animal welfare.  

But several players in the Arctic are now seeking to turn this narrative around demonstrating that the Arctic is not only a food-producing but also a food-exporting region, and that it can contribute to feeding a growing world population of 9.7 billion by 2050. They add that the Arctic food economy is expanding from being almost exclusively seafood-based, or a blue economy, to a green economy that promotes horticulture using new techniques like vertical farming.  As the Arctic food landscape transforms, a process is underway to preserve and valorise the traditional Arctic diet, and to have it serve as the basis for ‘food tourism’ in the region.

The fishing industry is one of the main sources of export revenue in the Arctic. Image : Henning Flusund / Baffin Fisheries

New Narrative on Food Security in the Arctic

The institutions that are forging this new narrative include the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) of the Arctic Council, the Arctic Economic Council, and movements such as New Arctic Kitchen –  a network food professionals aiming to valorise the Arctic food system.

In 2019, the SDWG of the Arctic Council issued The Arctic as a Food Producing Region report, which examined different forms of food production in the Arctic, breaking them down into the following:

o Primary production with no value addition:  used to denote fishing, hunting and gathering, agriculture and aquaculture. 

o Secondary processing with limited value addition: used to denote the slaughter, processing, packing and transportation of a primary product. 

o Tertiary production with substantial value addition: used to denote processing that significantly changes the character of the primary product to result in consumer-ready final products.

The report notes that considerable amounts of food are already being produced in the Arctic that are compatible with local diets and that could appeal to consumers in other parts of the world, but that the food industry in the Arctic is shackled by a plethora of social, economic, climatic and logistical problems.  For instance, the demographic challenge in the Arctic of youth emigration, where the youth are leaving the Arctic to receive an education abroad or to find meaningful employment, has meant that the food industry struggles to find the labour force it needs.  Problems such as this make it difficult to climb to tertiary food production in the region.

The report finds that more than 5.6 billion kilograms of commercial foods had been exported from the Arctic in 2016, generating an estimated revenue of $24.8 billion. The food sector creates jobs in all areas of the economy, from manufacture to research and innovation and the services industry; with local ingredients and savoir-faire witnessing a revitalization thanks to Arctic food producers and chefs.  Some of these chefs have even attracted the attention of Michelin Guide inspectors and other renowned food critics.  Furthermore, the report notes that while no less than 633 marine fish species could have been harvested in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas, only 58 are actually being fished. The point being that Arctic fishing activity is much more sustainable than it is given credit to be.

Interestingly, the report demonstrates that while fishing and hunting are the two main activities associated with food production in the Arctic, a green not a just a blue agricultural economy is beginning to flourish.  With global warming proceeding at twice the global rate up north, new possibilities are opening up for plant production through longer growing seasons and higher temperatures.  In fact, the unique light conditions in the Arctic, length of the polar day in summer months, and rising temperatures are combining to create new environmental conditions not comparable to any other plant-producing region in the world.

A sun shining night and day half the year and a rise in temperatures would provide good conditions for the production of plants for food. Image:  Jørgen Mølmann / Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research

Recognizing that the role of the Arctic food sector in helping meet local and global food needs has barely been tapped, the SDWG launched the Arctic Food Innovation Cluster  to pilot new food solutions across the Arctic. Through the Cluster, the SDWG works to identify and connect actors in the Arctic food value chain – from entrepreneurs to investors, research centres, businesses and bio-technology developers that have knowledge and interest in the Arctic food system.  Innovation is seen as essential to overcoming the Arctic’s harsh environment that renders production, transportation and shipping particularly challenging.

In 2023, the  State of Arctic Food, a report by the Arctic Economic Council, went further.  It measured the food production and export capacity of the 8 countries surrounding the Arctic Ocean, demonstrating that food production is not only a significant part of the Arctic economy, but has already turned into an important export earner.  For instance, in Alaska the food sector contributed 15% of total GDP in 2020, with the seafood industry being the largest private sector employer.  On the whole Alaska was a net-food exporting Arctic region, exporting food to the value of $2.4 billion in 2020 against a food import bill of $2 billion.  Like Alaska, the Faroe Islands are another net-food exporting region, exporting food to the tune of $1.68 billion in 2022 against total imports of $320 million.  

While the traditional seafood industry is still the cornerstone of the Arctic food system, new products such as seaweed, shellfish and unique dairy products are entering markets (such as Skyr, a thick, protein-rich Icelandic yogurt).  There are around 12,000 different species of seaweed in the world, with nearly 500 of them that can be found in Arctic part of Norway.  Seaweed is one of the world’s most ancient food sources, and a sustainable and highly nutritious option to feed today’s growing world population.  Many traditional Arctic seafood companies are also branching out to new and innovative products using what previously was considered waste. Shrimp shells, for instance, are being used to produce heart medication, while fish skin is being used from to make everything from pharmaceutical  products and textiles to fabrics, and multiple other things.

Skyr, fish skin, shellfish or, as shown above, fermented and dried lamb and arctic berries rich in antioxidants are increasingly entering the market, finding applications for certain products in sectors other than food. Images (from left to right): THE TARV/Facebook and Kristen Swann / Visit Anchorage

But food production in the Arctic extends beyond seafood, to meats, wild fruits and vegetables and more recently horticulture.  In the Faroe islands, sheep and lamb meat are amongst the leading exported products after seafood; with skerpikjøt, a naturally wind-dried fermented lamb being a Faroese delicacy.  It is often compared to Japanese umami.  In Alaska, the Wild Alaskan Company is now highlighting the special nutritional attributes of wild fruit from region.  One study finds that lingonberries grown in Alaska had over eight times the presence of antioxidants compared with conventionally-grown berries from the outside of the state, and that wild Alaskan blueberries are up to 10 times more concentrated in antioxidant content than the common blueberry. 

Using local renewable energy sources, some companies now produce vertically-farmed vegetables and mushrooms, making fresh locally-produced fruits and vegetables available all year round with a limited carbon footprint. In Iceland, for instance, thanks to an abundance of geothermal energy, greenhouse crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, coffee and even cocoa are being grown in large quantities.  In fact, the country claims to have Europe‘s largest banana plantation in Hveragerði – Iceland’s greenhouse capital. According to Matis, an independent research institute working on  innovation in the food industry in Iceland, Icelandic greenhouse vegetables contain a higher concentration of vitamin A, vitamin E and folate than in imported vegetables. 

The spirits sector is also flourishing in the Arctic.  The combination of Arctic fresh water, botanicals and berries with Northerners’ skills and ingenuity, are resulting in some of the purest alcoholic beverages in the world. Most Arctic spirit production takes place in Scandinavia, with Norway as the leader.  In fact, the world’s northernmost brewery is found in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. 

The report dispels the widespread misconception that “nothing can be sustainably grown or harvested in the Arctic,” and cautions against the popular belief that “the Arctic environment should be preserved at all cost” – reminding policy makers that the Arctic does not just comprise exotic flora and fauna, but is also made of people who, like everyone else, want a decent living.  

It affirms that the environmental regulations now in place in various corners of the Arctic are making traditional diets compatible with the environmental sustainability and animal welfare expectations of a modern food system.  In Alaska, for instance, while local and indigenous hunters, fishers, and gatherers harvest an estimated 34 million pounds of wild foods annually, it is illegal to sell big-game meat in Alaska, and animals like seal or whale can be harvested only by Alaskan native people.  Similarly in Greenland, Greenlandic salmon (or Kapisillit in the Greenlandic language), whale and seal meat can only be sold for local use, with no export being allowed. Moreover, certain species like the blue whale are strictly protected. 

The report’s top recommendations include promoting trade facilitation in the Arctic as well as pan-Arctic cooperation on food security, boosting connectivity and improving infrastructure, promoting food tourism, and promoting renewable energy to continue to enable diversification towards horticulture.

The famous muktuk is a traditional food among the Inuit. This is whale, beluga or narwhal blubber with the skin. Image : Lisa Risager / Wikicommons

The ‘New Arctic Kitchen,’ Innovation and the Road Ahead

There is widespread recognition that innovation will need to be at the centre of Arctic food security going forward.  Arctic communities will need to innovate in the types of food they produce, in how they produce them, and in how they communicate and sell their food choices to the outside world. Examples of innovative approaches to food are visible across the Arctic and are being promoted by movements such as the New Arctic Kitchen.   

Seaweed for instance is experiencing a renaissance, and promises to become a major new sustainable “super food.” It is an old Inuit tradition to eat seaweed, but in recent years there has been a renewed focus on this natural product in an attempt to produce it on a much larger scale and to do so without conventional sources of energy.  In the Faroe Islands, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has invested in a large seaweed farm arguing that it would boost biodiversity in the sea; while in Greenland, a research team has been investigating the multiple ways in which seaweed can be exploited as a food source, as well as the possibility of drying and preserving seaweed once extracted from the sea without using fossil fuels.  Researchers argue that many thickeners that are used in food production can be extracted from seaweed, and that it can also be used as a fertilizer and feed for livestock.   

Experiments are also underway on how to make better and fuller use of seal meat through new methods of cutting and treating the meat. Key to the innovative “Nuuk Method” of treating seals has been the deconstruction of the animal and the creation of a cutting chart for it.  The method is based on separating the meat from the blubber to make both the meat and the blubber more delicate and usable for multiple new products.  It also involves soaking the meat in water, preferably just after the kill, to wash out the meat’s fishy taste and create more tender and high quality meat.  

The “Nuuk Method” which cuts the seal into several pieces. Each of these is intended for a specific use. Terrine, pat, soup, tartare, filet, everything in seal is good and you can even make it into sashimi. Image : New Arctic Kitchen

In an interview of Rasmus Holmes, the founder of New Arctic Kitchen, he explained that new ways of using local resources would be key to the future of Arctic cuisine.  “The meat industry is very sophisticated in certain parts of the world;  this cut goes to this, that cut goes to that.  This allows producers to  develop wider variety of dishes.  In the Arctic, meat has been developed on premise of survival instead of the need to create a sophisticated cuisine.  In New Arctic Kitchen we are trying to cater to the need for a more advanced cuisine.”   Which is exactly what the Nuuk Method aims to achieve with seals.

Greenland like Iceland is also innovating and investing in a green agricultural economy, using renewable energy.  In 2019, two entrepreneurs started the Greenlandic Greenhouse – a company that produces pesticide-free salad and herbs in a large warehouse in the capital Nuuk. They employ the vertical farming method, with vegetables grown on shelves with no soil or sunlight, using only LED-lighting and little water. And whereas in Iceland greenhouses are fuelled by geothermal energy,  Greenlandic Greenhouse derives its energy from a local hydropower plant.  The company argues that this makes locally-grown fruits and vegetables more sustainable than imported ones which not only cost more, but also damage the environment through long-distance transport. 

Rasmus Jakobsen, the company executive, expalins that the “security of supply in Greenland is bad. Containers often arrive too early – other times too late. That is, sometimes we have twice as many vegetables as we need. At other times, shelves in the supermarkets are empty.”  Greenlandic Greenhouse tries to solve this problem through local production, therefore stabilizing supply.  In fact, research conducted by the Rockwool Foundation shows that up to two thirds of Greenland’s imported vegetables and herbs are discarded because they spoil during shipping. Greenlandic Greenhouse, on the other hand, delivers its produce right when customers need it and minimizes food waste.

Interview Rasmus Holm

Founder, New Arctic Kitchen

29 January 2024

I founded New Arctic Kitchen seven years ago as a network of people involved in the food industry. The Arctic is a region characterized by small coastal communities, not closely connected with each other or with other parts of the world.   We in the Arctic feel that we are remote and sometimes even inferior. My goal was to connect people and to show that there is such a thing as an Arctic kitchen, with its own ingredients and traditions.

Arctic cuisine is seen as different from the predominant norm of how people in the rest of the world see food.  Food in the Arctic is perceived as hurting animals and birds that are not eaten elsewhere.  It is different from the benchmark, different from the norm.

When people ask me whether Arctic food is sustainable, I say that our food sources are not grown.  It is not agriculture, it is fishing and hunting. Sustainability for us is about sustaining a certain fish or animal population.  In many parts of the world, it is industrial production and not subsistence agriculture.  We don’t transport what we eat, we use what is in season.

When people ask me about animal welfare, I say that it is not fair to expect people to be vegetarian in the Arctic.  It is difficult to be vegetarian in a part of the world where you cannot grow vegetables.  It is hard to live in the Arctic without a diet that consists of fish and animals, unless of course you choose to import all your food. Industrial meat production is the problem, not subsistence Arctic meat consumption.

The Arctic is a difficult part of the world to grow food in, and you can’t invent new food sources.  Some technologies, such as greenhouses, are possible in Iceland but in other places they are not a possibility, so you have to eat what you have.

Food is also a political issue. A political decision has been taken in much of the Arctic to focus on local food sources instead of supporting imported foods.  It is about cultural identity, pride and food security.  Also, imported food is really expensive, and comes from a history of marginalization and colonization.  Our small contribution, in New Arctic Kitchen, is to try and inspire Arctic cuisine.

I am sure that the Arctic can be a net food producer but my focus is much more on the home market; in other words, on not importing but producing locally instead.   When you build your domestic cuisine, you then have something to export. Health, culture and identity are my focus.  

Food tourism?  Tourism is not only about culture and wildlife but it is also about food.   We offer a story about our culture and our way of life through the food we eat.   One of the projects that we are working on now is a tourism and food project to help small-scale local tourism operators offer a food experience.  We want them to offer cooking methods and foods that can be used without a huge amount of prior knowledge, without being a chef.  Tourism is about nature and wildlife in the Arctic; and it must also be about outdoor foods.

Innovation in the Arctic is extending to the field of food tourism, where food critics from all over the world are beginning to understand and appreciate Arctic cuisine and are starting to rate the best restaurants.  In fact, a number of Arctic chefs are gaining international recognition for their use of local ingredients, their tweaking of traditional dishes, and their ability to convey a story and an Arctic experience through their food.  One of these chefs is Inunnguaq Hegelund, who is trying to revolutionize Greenlandic cuisine, to liberate it from the shackles of Danish colonialism, and to inspire food tourism through the creation of mobile “pop-up” restaurants, that travel across Greenland. 

Another is chef Poul Ziska, who works at the world’s northernmost Michelin-star restaurant, KOKS, that first opened in the Faroe Islands and then moved to Greenland. In an interview this January, he explained that it took a while for Faroese people to take pride of their cuisine.  “Faroese food is something you kept to yourself,  and when you received visitors you would bring out fresh spring lamb instead of the fermented lamb you’ve had since December.  Now we are more proud of what we are doing, and we want to show it.  The stigma comes from being under the Danish realm. Denmark is very rich and has access to much finer food culture than we do.  We felt embarrassed and felt that our food was simply not good enough.  This has been drilled deep into the consciousness of the Faroese people.  But internet made us realize that our traditions existed in other places, and that others could be accepting of our strong fermented flavours, like the French who eat very strong cheese.” One of Chef Ziska’s best-known recipes combines fermented lamb intestines with fermented cod fish, with potato purée and cheese sauce.   It has been heralded as one of the best modern interpretations of Arctic cuisine (full recipe below).   

Clearly, the narrative on Arctic food security is changing, and Arctic cuisine is now in full renaissance.  As this renaissance takes place, attention will need to be paid to the food security of the local and indigenous communities (Part II of this article); with the rest of the world needing to keep a more open mind to their food – if not survival – traditions that go back thousands of years.  

Recipe by Chef Poul ZiskaRæstan fisk and garnatálg

(A combination of fermented lamb intestines and fermented cod fish on a bed of potato purée)

Potato purée

90g cooked potatoes

9g butter

9g cream

1,8g salt


Cook the potatoes and leave to steam off. Pass them through a potato ricer and mix in the butter, cream and salt while the potatoes are still warm. 

Potato sticks

2 potatoes


Peel and cut the potatoes on a meat slicer at 10mm. Punch out the potato with a 10mm cutting ring. Save all off-cuts for the potato purée. Blanch the potatoes for 45 seconds and cool in ice water, then store in an airtight container until needed. Allow approximately 15-20 pieces per person.

Garnatálg disk

25g breadcrumbs

15g grated cheese

25g soft butter

25g garnatálg (lamb’s intestinal fat)


Add the garnatálg to a pot and melt it over low heat, then bring up the heat and roast it for 3 minutes. Now sieve the garnatálg to get rid of any meat crumbs, and leave to cool down to around 50°C. Add the breadcrumbs to a blender and blend into a flour-like appearance, then blend in the cheese to a uniform mixture and then the soft butter and garnatálg. Add the mixture between two sheets of parchment paper and spread out to an even 3mm thin layer and freeze. When frozen, use a 67mm cutting ring to punch out the cheese disks and store on parchment paper in the freezer until needed. 

Ræstur fiskur

1 fillet of fermented ocean perch (approximately 200 g)

500g water

15g salt


Dissolve the salt in the water. Add the fillet to the brine and let it cure for 12 hours. Remove from the brine, pat dry and then roll up with a plastic wrap. Steam at 70°C for about 25-35 minutes, depending on thickness. Leave to cool, and then freeze the roll. Keep in the freezer until needed. 

Leek ash 

1 leek


Cut the leek in half lengthwise and separate the layers. Cook in the oven at 300°C for 30 min until completely burned. Blend the burnt leeks into a fine powder. 

Cheese base

70g aged cow’s cheese 

70g water


Cut the cheese into smaller pieces and add to a pot. Add the water and simmer for 20 minutes while stirring every now and then. Strain the cheese base and leave to cool. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.  

Cheese sauce

80 g cheese base

16g reduced cream (reduced by 2/3)

8 gbutter

3g corn starch mix (1 part water, 1 part Maizena)

0,8g lecithin powder


Add the cheese base, reduced cream, and butter to a pot and bring to the boil. Thicken the sauce with the corn starch and then blend in the lecithin with a hand blender.


Warm the potato purée in a pot, transfer to a piping bag and then cover the bottom of the bowl with the purée. Place a garnatálg disk over the potato purée and burn with a blow torch. Place the potato sticks around the bowl and then sprinkle with leek ash. Warm the cheese sauce and foam with a hand blender. Grate a small amount of the frozen fermented fish over the dish at table-side and finish by pouring the sauce.

Doaa Abdel-Motaal is Visiting Professor on polar governance at Sciences Po in Paris. Her book Antarctica, the Battle for the Seventh Continent  was nominated for the 2018 Mountbatten Best Book Award and presented at the Financial Times Literary Festival in Oxford. She was the Executive Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health, and has worked in numerous international organizations.

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