A network of universities and research groups from nations bordering the Arctic Ocean have banded together to form the University of the Arctic, the North’s only circumpolar higher education institution. It’s researchers work to promote the welfare of indigenous peoples by finding local solutions to problems posed by a changing world. Presentations at the university’s eighth annual conference in Girdwood focused on food: its security, storage, and safety.
Norma Kassi, director of the Yukon Territory’s Indigenous Collaboration Arctic Institute, stressed the importance of local programs for food storage and sharing in her Vuntut Gwitch’in village of Old Crow. Kassi says a road shutdown in July, 2012, was a real eye opener
“There was huge washouts that took out the Alaska highway on both sides of Whitehorse, and this was a real awakening for people in the Yukon. We had to get together and start working on our own food security. And most of the fresh produce in the stores was gone in two days, and it was people with money who would get all that, and the outlying communities didn’t have access to the big stores in Whitehorse, of course.”
She says helicopters had to fly food into the village that time. Villagers have since instituted strategies of storage, gardening, youth education and local animal farming to cope with shortages that are increasing with climate change. Kassi said that changing weather does not allow for meat to dry outdoors anymore, and high water on the river tears nets so badly that salmon harvests dwindle.
Closer to home, Bryce Wrigley, is a 30 year barley farmer from Delta Junction. He says he recognize the same threat during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
“It took two weeks to get food into those people. How could that possibly happen? The thought just keep going over and over in my mind, how, with all those resources and so close to food supply, how could it take two weeks to get food in to those people stranded in New Orleans. And the next logical extension of that thought was, what if it happened here? What would we do?”
Wrigley says a disruption in the transportation chain is a real possibility, and although it is sometimes cheaper to import goods into Alaska, the cost of depending on imports is high, because importing does not create jobs. He decided to help by starting up a flour mill in Delta Junction. The Alaska Flour Company is a home grown operation, milling barley from the Wrigley family farm. Wrigley says from a food security standpoint, it is important to help local farmers while producing a needed product in Alaska.
During their talks, both Wrigley and Kassi stressed the importance of local action first. Kassi calls it the “pebble approach”: toss a pebble into a creek, and see where the ripples spread. Another presenter at the conference, Carol Lewis, directs UAF’s school of natural resources and agricultural sciences.
“Unfortunately, people have forgotten the fragility of the North, and that is what we are trying to point out here.”
Lewis says UAF participates in the conference to bring current information back to Alaska through the cooperative extension service. Lewis says Alaska already imports ninety percent of it’s food, and with more people moving to Alaska, the state should be concerned.
“I think we need to get the message that we need infrastructure, we need community getting together and providing for themselves. But we also need to think that we have cities in the North, and in Hawaii for that matter, of a million people, and you can’t feed them with a community greenhouse. So, something has to be done.”
Lewis says, in Alaska, as in other areas of the US, the farm population is aging, causing a drop in the number of people who can keep land in production. The Circumpolar Agricultural Conference continues through Thursday in Girdwood.