By Hannah Buehler
Cuisine cannot be separated from the environment. The culture surrounding food and the ingredients themselves are deeply rooted in the seasons, land, and ecology of a locality. In one of the harshest environments on earth, the Arctic, thousands of years of ecological knowledge, tradition, and adaptation have developed a unique cuisine. The Sámi of Scandinavia prepare a soup of boiled reindeer hooves and tongues. The Dolgan of Russia grill velvety reindeer antlers over fire. Dried bearded seal meat preserved in seal oil is a staple for the Iñupiat of Alaska.
The importance of food for circumpolar Indigenous peoples extends far beyond access to nutrients and calories. Circumpolar life and identity has centered on the procurement, preparation, and consumption of food since humans first arrived in the Arctic. Storytelling, dancing, drumming, art, language, and ceremonies have been generated around food traditions. In the words of Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, “The process of the hunt and the eating of our country food personifies what it really means to be Inuit.” It is through the transmission of subsistence skills that children are taught cultural values, life skills, and spirituality; “it is on the land that the values and the age old knowledge are passed down from generation to generation.”
But dramatic change is happening in the Arctic. Over the past 30 years, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region on earth. According to the Nunavut Climate Change Centre, over the past century, the Arctic has seen an average increase in warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. For circumpolar peoples whose food security, livelihood, and socio-cultural identity are contingent on the health of the Arctic environment, climate change poses an enormous risk. Subsistence activities have been disrupted by altered landscapes, increased frequency and intensity of storms, changes in animal behaviors, and increased food spoilage.
Arctic sea ice extends across circumpolar regions for much of the year, allowing hunters to travel and reach hunting grounds. While sea ice is constantly changing, it follows predictable cycles. Indigenous knowledge of sea-ice dynamics involves analyzing astronomical phenomena, geography, tides and currents, and the nature of ice in order to safely hunt, fish, and trap. But warmer temperatures and flows of warm ocean currents create hazardous conditions. Later freeze-up and earlier spring break-ups, frequent storms, and unexpected thinning and cracking have lead to accidents on the sea ice, resulting in loss of equipment, injury, and even death.
Other dangers to hunters come from the severity and unpredictability of storms. Sea ice usually blocks large ocean waves from forming, but the loss of sea ice allows for larger waves and coastal erosion. Hunters diligently assess cloud formations and wind patterns to predict the arrival of storms or changes in weather conditions that could be dangerous. But Indigenous hunters have reported that the weather shifts more quickly now, and stronger winds make coming storms less easy to spot. The increased risk makes subsistence activities time intensive and expensive because of lost equipment and the need to carry more supplies in case of an accident on the ice.
While on the land, Arctic hunters are able to orient themselves using their knowledge of wind and snowdrift patterns, tides, currents, and astrology. In a warming Arctic, these indicators are becoming increasingly unreliable, impairing Inuit hunters’ ability to navigate to find trails and traditional hunting grounds.
Receding sea ice and changing topography also makes hunting more difficult and dangerous for the Arctic animals that circumpolar peoples depend on for food, clothing, and income. The shorter sea ice season limits food access for polar bears and foxes, which hunt on the sea ice. Walruses and seals use the sea ice to rest and raise their pups; its absence leads to exhaustion and higher mortality among their young. Increased temperatures cause the plants that caribou and reindeer eat to mature before the herds begin their seasonal migration.
Arctic animals are also facing increased competition and disease from southern species moving northward. Grizzly bears and killer whales, which are better adapted to the warmer weather, have been reported moving into the Arctic. Land-based species are moving northward at a rate of 10 miles per decade and marine species are shifting north by nearly 45 miles a decade. This shift causes major changes to animal’s phenology, or the seasonal timing of life events like breeding and migration, making it harder for hunters to know when and where to hunt, fish, and trap.
Once meat is acquired, warmer temperatures and thawing permafrost create food safety concerns. Meat stored in outdoor caches no longer remains fresh and preserved in the cold. Since raw meat and fish are staples of Northern diets, rising temperatures heighten the risks of spoiling food and outbreaks of botulism.
A more hazardous landscape, unpredictable weather, and disrupted animal patterns have resulted in less successful hunts, more income spent on damaged or lost equipment, and, ultimately, a decline in the number of active hunters. With limited access to traditional foods, Northerners must turn to alternative sources, such as grocery stores, to supplement their diets. Store-bought foods are a far less nutritious, fresh, or affordable than traditional foods. Data from the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics released in March 2017 showed that shoppers in the North pay $13.54 for one kilogram of chicken, nearly double the average price for the rest of Canada. In the Russian Arctic, food costs comprise 23-43 percent of household income. These prices reflect the costs of shipping food to the high Arctic. As a result, high rates of food insecurity plague the region. For example, 70 percent of Inuit homes in the Nunavut territory of Northern Canada are food insecure, in contrast to the 8 percent of food insecure Canadians in the rest of the country. Similar patterns occur elsewhere in the Arctic. According to the Alaska Division of Public Health, 19 percent of Native Alaskans are food insecure, in contrast to an average of 10.8 percent among all Alaskans.
Global inaction to address and mitigate the effects of climate change on circumpolar food security violate Article 20 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that “Indigenous peoples have the right … to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.” Since circumpolar Indigenous peoples have a unique relationship to their environment, these rights are contingent on a healthy Arctic ecosystem. As climate change continues to shape the Arctic, Indigenous peoples must maintain the power to make decisions and define what is environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable for the region.
Hannah Buehler is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.[Photo courtesy of USFWS]