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Fairbanks researchers tackle food woes of Alaska, Far North

Suzanna Caldwell
Radio Canada International photo

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Alaska can be a tricky place to produce food. While it's been done for centuries in subsistence cultures, innovations have hindered and helped develop what’s known as Alaska's foodshed.

Two researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Monday talked what can be done to build the food production of Alaska and other northern lands during a presentation at 15th Annual International Congress of Circumpolar Health. The congress, held every three years, brings together health practitioners, researchers, indigenous leaders and other community representatives from Arctic regions around the globe to discuss research and the pressing health needs in the circumpolar north.

The researchers – Craig Gerlach and Philip Loring – presented an overview of Alaska food systems in both urban and rural areas. What they found is that Alaskans – and all Arctic people – need to diversify their “food portfolio,” particularly with climate change bearing down.

“How vulnerable are these regions?” Gerlach said. “And how may they be vulnerable to things coming down the line?”

Many Arctic regions can't plan to produce specific amounts of food each year, Gerlach noted, because of unpredictable weather and uncertain food supplies. Alaska has seen examples this summer:

  • On the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska, villagers defied state regulations that prohibited fishing so minimum king salmon escapements could be met. Without salmon, villagers said, they might go hungry come winter.
  • Anglers and commercial salmon fishing in other areas, including the Kenai Peninsula, have been shut down.
  • Crops in the Mat-Su valley are weeks behind schedule after cold weather has kept plants from maturing on time.

But rural areas aren't alone in their food woes. Gerlach said 14.5 percent of all Alaskans are food insecure. Even urban areas only have about seven days worth of food on the shelf at any given time. In urban hubs like Fairbanks and Anchorage, food can cost 25 percent more than it does in the Lower 48. But that’s cheap compared to some rural areas, Gerlach said. The last time he was in Fort Yukon, a gallon of milk cost $15.

“I couldn't afford to live in Fort Yukon,” he said.

Expanding food portfolios would help offset some of the costs by diversifying what kind of food can be grown in a region and by looking beyond traditional sources. In both rural and urban Alaska, that means expanded farming and taking a hard look at the rest of Alaska's food supply.

But food portfolios aren’t just about filling bellies, Gerlach said. Food needs to be nutritious and applicable to the culture. When that happens, people can see a reduction of diseases associated with “nutrition transition,” such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

He used an example from a colleague in the Lower 48, who watched as members of the Hopi tribe were given food baskets filled with dairy products. Many Natives are lactose intolerant and products like powdered milk were used to mark baseball diamonds instead of being consumed.

Another issue facing food production is regulation. Certain food safety protocols designed for industrial farming operations can be  impractical for small farmers, Gerlach said.

“If we want to make it economically viable, we've got to work through food safety,” he said.

In Alaska, where many foods are tricky to produce, Loring said it's important to encourage small-scale production, even in tough times. One year of bad crops in the Mat-Su might not mean there won't be crops next year. But successive years of instability can force producers out, deepening Alaska's food worries.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com