Alaska Arctic Council Ad Hoc Working Group

Briefing – Food Security in the Arctic

Daniel Consenstein, State Executive Director, Alaska Farm Service Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the featured speaker for the working group’s April 19 teleconference meeting.  Consenstein said food security fits within the       Arctic Council’s (AC) themes and initiatives on improving economic and community living conditions.  Food is something that affects these communities.

Food insecurity has many meanings for different people, Consenstein said.  In Alaska, this topic is often viewed in the emergency preparedness context.  Given their remote location, Alaskans have a sense of vulnerability.  For Alaska’s Arctic communities, it’s even more so.

Food security aligns more with the lower 48 on hunger issues.  People are considered food insecure if they are short on food or don’t know where their next meal will come from.

In Alaska’s Arctic Communities, food security has a different definition and a deeper connection.  People are thinking about their cultural connections to food, and to the land and the environment where they live.

Craig Fleener, Arctic Policy Advisor for the State of Alaska, added that rural or urban food security also relates to how much people depend on cash transfers to fill the gap on high food prices.  But, this won’t offer food security if the state can’t balance its budget and can no longer provide assistance.

Fleener divided food security into two categories – urban and rural.  Urban security relates to the supply chain and what supplies will be available if the chain is disrupted.  Right now, 100,000 people would only have enough food for three days.  Rural food security faces day to day risks, but, longer term, has better food security because subsistence resources are available.

Consenstein said an understanding of the issue allows one to jump to the solutions.  Another way to describe it is to use the food system concept, consisting of food sources, how food is obtained, what is consumed, and how what’s left is disposed.  Every region has its own food system, impacting local health, economy, culture, and emergency preparedness security.  We can then assess if the system works for us.

The Alaska Food Policy Council strategic plan found that subsistence food has an economic value of $900 million per year.  In rural areas, about 80 percent of the food consumed was obtained through subsistence hunting.  In urban areas, subsistence only accounts for 10 percent.

Consenstein said Kawerak (the nonprofit Native organization for the Bering Straits region) wrote a letter to Alaska’s congressional delegation and governor last December saying that Arctic communities need build their resilience level as climate change impacts their food security.  They asked for help in dealing with future food security issues.

Government agencies have the ability to make an impact, Consenstein said, by encouraging more dialogue, listening to the communities, and engaging with communities over the problems and solutions.  One idea is to look at the “food system.”

Food systems provide opportunities for research.  In terms of planning for climate change impacts, agencies are looking at relocating specific communities.  Food security needs to be included in the planning process and relocation discussion, and considered for infrastructure development.

Consenstein also mentioned that USDA is involved in helping to make sure that traditional foods are available in institutional settings (schools, hospitals, etc.).

Fleener said the big question is why food security is an Arctic issue.  Besides health, food is a matter of economics as well.  A lot of money is spent transporting food into and within Alaska.  Again, Alaska is acting like a colony, sending its money outside for goods that can be produced in state.

Consenstein said this relates to community sustainability.  Efforts could be made to ask the grocery store chains to carry more made-in-Alaska food products.

Fleener said one challenge is that grocery store chains also own farms and other food producers.  An Alaskan produce section in every store might be possible to promote, however.

Consenstein responded that an implementation strategy would involve consumers demanding Alaska grown products.

Ethan Tyler, Development Manager, Alaska Division of Economic Development, said the food security topic is often divided into two sections because of two distinctly different needs.  In urban areas, Alaska faces a supply chain challenge in producing the amount of local agricultural products the market demands at a cost that’s competitive with Outside products.

Alaska needs a leader to champion rural agriculture in order to make progress.  Advocates for local food need to be found in the state’s communities.

Nils Andreasson, Executive Director, Institute of the North, said food security has two very different definitions, but they are not necessarily incompatible.  Food security is an overarching issue that helps connect the rural and urban communities.  Food security needs to be included in all levels of government decision making.  Food security offers a lens for viewing the Arctic and all of Alaska.

The government also has a supply side role and needs to look at the people of Alaska’s needs for land, financing, and production.

Arctic Council Update

Adrianna Muir, Deputy Senior Arctic Official with the U.S. State Department gave an update on the March AC meetings, which were the second set of meetings during the U.S. chairmanship.

In March, the AC members stepped back and looked at some of the broader operations.  Each working group highlighted its progress on one project and asked for advice as needed.  When the AC meets in October, the traditional meeting structure will return and the groups will give full reports on their projects.

The AC is examining food security through the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) and the “Arctic as a Food Producing Region” initiative.

The AC has a new project—the Arctic Remote Energy Network Academy (ARENA)–underway to help practitioners understand how to operate and maintain micro-grids.

The Biodiversity WG covers invasive species.  By building on the work U.S. federal agencies, the WG is trying to get ahead of this problem, share best practices, and install prevention methods before there are too many invasive species to handle.

The Emergency Response & Preparedness WG is ensuring that good relationships are in place with the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and Coast Guard entities that are conducting Arctic exercises, such as the Arctic Chinook field exercise planned for August.

The Protection of Arctic Marine Flora & Fauna (PAME) WG is using the knowledge of the managers and practitioners for existing marine protected areas to plan for an MPA network throughout the Arctic.

Muir said the AC is using this time period to discuss administrative and structural issues.  Funding, for example, is a challenge.  The AC is examining the budget it has to work with and how it can be increased.

The AC assessed how the working groups could operate in a mutually beneficial manner.  Adopting guidelines for more transparency could be helpful.

The AC honed in on climate change as the subject of a robust conversation.  The council commonly hears from delegates that climate change is one of the main priorities in the Arctic.  Finding common ground could help Finland when it takes over the AC chairmanship next year.

The Secretariat gave an overview of what the COP21 agreement means for the Arctic.  It continues to focus on black carbon and mitigation (the AC has a task force devoted to this subject) while also recognizing resilience and adaptation, the need for an Arctic observing system, and communications about climate change impacts.

Among the many ideas exchanged at the AC meeting, some requested work on wetlands and many others wanted more attention for renewable energy.

Another cross cutting theme was oil and gas, although the conversation on this topic was not united, unlike climate change.  Russia and Norway—major oil producing countries—said the AC did not need to be consulted about this subject.  The U.S., however, felt ongoing consultation with AC would be valuable.  Without agreement, oil and gas can’t be advanced for AC consideration.

The AC’s task forces had provided updates.

  • The Scientific Cooperation Task Force is focusing on the logistical barriers to international research.
  • The Arctic Marine Cooperation Task Force is still trying to figure out its direction. It may have a more solid proposal for the Finnish chairmanship period.

Andreasson gave the Ad Hoc Working Group an Alaska Arctic Council Host Committee update.  The committee will host a number of events for the Senior Arctic Officials meeting, including visits to Fort Yukon and the Alpine oil field with the National Petroleum Reserve.  The banquet is expected to have 800 attendees.  The notes from these meetings may be found in the fourth issue of The Arctic Report, found here.

Andreasson discussed the need for a business directory to help inform people of who to contact if they are interested in doing business in the Arctic.

Planning is also underway for the last ministerial meeting under the U.S. chairmanship, which will be held in Maine in May, 2017.