A Changing Narrative on Arctic Food Security Part 2 | Polarjournal
Local and Indigenous Arctic communities rely on subsistence hunting and fishing for thousands of years. Photo: Julia Hager

In a two-part article, guest author and Professor Doaa Abdel-Motaal discusses food security in the Arctic, Today, PolarJournal is publishing the second part about the perspective of local and Indigenous Arctic Communities.

As the food production capability of the Arctic rapidly transforms, and as regional bodies such as the Arctic Economic Council seek to position the Arctic as not only a food-producing but also a food-exporting region, local and indigenous communities have struggled to preserve their traditional diets. Tensions are visible between efforts to maintain these traditional diets, based on hunting, fishing and gathering, and efforts to transition towards more modern food systems based on agriculture.

Local and indigenous communities in the Arctic have relied for thousands of years on locally available animals and plants for their food security. Studies demonstrate that traditional diets are particularly nutritious. The traditional Inuit diet is notable for its richness in omega-3 fatty acids, largely due to the high consumption of fish and other marine-based foods. High fish oil consumption leads to the proliferation of Akkermansia muciniphila, which is a gut bacterium that contributes to combating metabolic ailments including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular conditions. Arctic wild fruits and vegetables are equally significant in their health benefits. Arctic berries, for instance, are rich in health-promoting polyphenolsthat that act as antioxidants, warding-off various diseases. Extracts from cloudberries, alpine bearberries and lingonberries have shown promising outcomes in managing insulin levels and addressing metabolic disorders.

The State of Arctic Food explains that Kalaalimernit, which is the traditional Greenlandic diet, is mainly composed of marine mammals, fish, and wild fowl, supplemented with terrestrial species, particularly reindeer and some local plants, such as seaweed and berries. More than 65% of Greenland households fish, hunt and gather about a half or more of their consumption of fish and meat, and 3⁄4 of Greenlandic households hunt for at least one item of their daily food. A license is required for all hunting and fishing activities. Quotas and regulations are determined for individual species by the Ministry of Hunting, Fishing, and Agriculture and distributed by the municipality. In the Faroe Islands, the consumption of fat is an essential part of the Faroese diet. Traditional foods include tallow from sheep, fish fat and liver from codfish, and blubber from pilot whales. Until today, subsistence whaling fills up a significant portion of a Faroese household’s fridge.

Berries like these cloudberries are a healthy addition to the seafood-rich diet of Arctic Indigenous peoples. Photo: Ireen Trummer / Wikimedia

But the traditional Arctic diet is challenged by climate change, which is melting the ice that acts as the hunting ground for marine species and certain land mammals; by pollutants that are reaching the Arctic from other regions like persistent organic pollutants (POPs) or plastics in seawater that contaminate or kill marine species; by the artificial political boundaries that have been created between Arctic states separating indigenous communities and disrupting the continuity their herding activities; and by the new value systems that are imposed on local and indigenous communities from outside the Arctic region. These include beliefs on which types of marine species or birds are either alright or not alright to kill, and on how the hunting operations themselves must be conducted. These values are sometimes imposed by central governments that legislate for the Arctic and non-Arctic portions of a country through a one-size fits all approach, or through regional and international trading partners given the globalized food market.

All of these changes are making it more difficult for local communities in the Arctic to put food on the table, with their food insecurity increasingly considered a problem. The melting of the Arctic is having a profoundly negative impact on many indigenous hunters who for millennia have relied on the pursuit of whales, seals, fish, and land mammals such as caribou to feed their families. As sea ice becomes an increasingly unreliable hunting platform and soaring temperatures alter the life cycle and abundance of prey species, some indigenous communities are facing worsening food shortages and a lack of proper nutrition.

David Natcher, Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, says that “Changing ice conditions have increased the time and cost of harvesting. Changing environmental conditions have also made it more difficult for Inuit elders to share their predictive knowledge of the weather. This has contributed to growing uncertainty among younger harvesters to access the land, sea, and ice.” Climate change is also leading many southern species to shift northwards as the Arctic Ocean warms, with largely unknown consequences for the Arctic ecosystems. In some cases, southern species may outcompete and prey on Arctic species, or offer a less nutritious food source for Arctic species.

Such dramatic changes to the food landscape in the Arctic have confounded indigenous people, reduced the role they are able to play in identifying and pursuing food sources, and are causing the loss of traditional knowledge. At no time was the importance of traditional knowledge better demonstrated than in the aftermath of the massive outbreak of anthrax in reindeer in the Yamal Peninsula of Russia in 2016. The outbreak led to 2,650 reindeer getting infected, of which 2,350 died. Indigenous peoples were aware of the burial grounds for contaminated animals, and abandoned nomad camps that could contain anthrax spores in order to save human lives.

Marine mammals used to be healthy a food source for Indigenous peoples. With POPs accumulating in the environment and subsequently in the blubber of marine mammals, they became a health concern. Photo:
Polargeo via Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0

Climate change, however, is not the only problem created outside the Arctic with a profoundly negative effect on the Arctic. In a report produced by Canada’s Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 2012 on Food Security Across the Arctic, the Council spoke of the nefarious impact that POPs have had on the Arctic food system. POPs have led to contaminants building in the Arctic food chain, reducing the safety of the consumption predators higher up in the chain: “Marine fish and animals which are lower down the food chain will have lower contaminant levels. POPs, because of their chemical properties, concentrate in fatty tissues and, when consumed, the high levels of contaminants stored in these tissues are transferred to humans. The result is that in some parts of the Arctic, levels of contaminants in blood and breast milk are higher than those found anywhere else in the world.” In fact, today, the Greenland Board of Nutrition recommends that Greenlanders increase their consumption of fish and terrestrial animals, but reduce their intake of marine mammals to limit their intake of POPs and mercury.

Concern over the accumulation of POPs up the Arctic led indigenous groups to play an important role in the creation of an international legal instrument to control these chemicals; the Stockholm Convention that entered into force in 2004. In paragraph 3 of its preamble, the Convention recognizes the vulnerability of Arctic regions, “Acknowledging that the Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities are particularly at risk because of the biomagnification of persistent organic pollutants and that contamination of their traditional foods is a public health issue.”

Artificial national boundaries make it impossible for traditional reindeer herders to move with the seasons. Photo: ezioman via Wikipedia

The imposition of political boundaries between countries in the North has also had an impact on the food security of local populations. In the past, the Sami practiced nomadic reindeer herding in large, connected, undisturbed grazing areas. Reindeer of the Finnish Sami population migrated all the way to the Arctic Ocean and back to Finland. The creation of nation-states – Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – and the closing of borders in the 1950s, put an end to nomadic herding. In addition, in Finland, concern over Sami reindeer herders damaging pasture land, led to the 1990 Reindeer Husbandry Act that introduced reindeer reduction policies. The Sami in Finland argue that all these developments have constrained their herding activity and that reindeer reduction policies threaten their livelihood and the maintenance of Sami culture and identity. They see such policies as an infringement on indigenous rights.

Changing food value systems have also impacted local and indigenous communities in the Arctic, where environmental and animal welfare policies have been in full flux. In the Canadian Arctic, for instance, aboriginal hunters in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories were angry at being banned from hunting Bathurst caribou in the late 80s, even as potentially harmful mining activities in the herd’s territory were being approved. Although the causes of the Bathurst herd’s astonishing population decline in the Canadian Arctic has been attributed to a wide range of factors — such as changing weather (and its effect on vegetation and bugs), mass forest fires and industrial development, governmental regulators have wanted to focus their response on hunting and predator control as the two elements that could most easily be targeted. However, indigenous people complain that their subsistence hunting has never been the main threat. Such tensions between local populations and regulators are visible across the Arctic.

But different food value systems are also spilling into the Arctic from regional and international trading partners. In the 1970s, sustained environmental campaigns by organizations such as Greenpeace convinced much of the world that cuddly seals were being murdered in the Arctic. After public outcry, the European Economic Community banned the import of white harp seal pup furs in 1983, and later the European Union (EU) extended the ban to all seal products in 2009 citing “moral concerns.”

While the campaign against sealing succeeded in destroying European interest in seal products, it provided an incomplete story. In contrast to the commercial hunt that the images used in environmental campaigns had depicted, subsistence sealing has sustained generations of coastal communities across the Arctic. And while the EU later introduced certain exceptions within its ban for indigenous and subsistence seal hunting activities, the damage to the interests of local Arctic populations had already been done and has left deep wounds across the region. Hence the plea made by Canada’s Inuit Circumpolar Conference (Food Security Across the Arctic) as far back as 2012 for a “Framework on How to Assess Food Security From an Inuit Perspective”.

Clearly, as the Arctic begins to position itself as a food exporting region, and as it attempts to revitalize local cuisine (Part I of this article), attention will need to be paid to the food security of the local and indigenous communities and to the food traditions that have sustained them for thousands of years. A balance will need to be found between preserving some of their traditions and assisting local populations in adapting to change.

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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