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Polar Times

The impact of climate change on traditional food

Northern food production systems are under stress from a variety of forces. Many northern aboriginal communities experience periods of crisis in food supply due to the temporal fluctuations in natural food resources.By Cindy Dickson

Climate change will increase temporal fluctuations in species distribution, population abundance, morphology, behaviour and community structure. Some of the predicted and currently experienced changes in the north may create positive changes in animal numbers and distributions or provide opportunities to hunt new species as migration patterns and distributions shift.

The Canadian north is vast, rich in natural resources and includes the boreal forest, taiga and Arctic ecosystems. Indigenous peoples top the food chain in all three ecosystems. Athabaskan peoples in northern Canada eat large quantities of traditional foods obtained through hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. Since market foods are much more expensive in many northern communities than in the south, traditional food provides many components of a quality diet at relatively low cost.

Besides its nutritional values, the traditional diet is also a source of cultural strength and is critical for the social, mental and spiritual well-being of individuals and communities

Improving indigenous health?
The potential health effects of fluctuations of natural food resources on indigenous peoples may be indirect as well. Environmental contaminants, long-range transport, accumulation and biomagnification in the Arctic environment will be affected by climate change. Predicting how climate change will alter contaminant mechanisms in the Canadian north in a global environmental context remains a challenge. Traditional foods can also provide protection against many diseases, which are more prevalent among southern populations. Environmental influences on the availability of and acThe impact of climate change on traditional foodcess to these important sources of food, present the risk of losing these beneficial factors as well.

A project developed in partnership by two members of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) and Dene Nation, as well as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Center for Indigenous Peoples Nutrition and Environment (CINE) of McGill University and Laval University will investigate the potential health impacts of climate change on three northern Indigenous communities.

The effects of climate changes in the north on indigenous peoples’ ability to locate and procure these physically, social, culturally, mentally and economically important food sources are not simply predictions for the future, they are a reality in many communities today. However, the extent of these impacts and their implications for the nutritional well-being of individuals and communities is not yet well understood.

The project will work to develop strategies for adaptation to minimize potential impacts on the communities involved. These strategies will integrate local and traditional knowledge, wildlife biology, information on toxicology of environmental contaminants, food composition and nutrient requirement, food availability and effects of environmental changes, cultural and socioeconomic factors. Education and communication initiatives are also planned to assist individuals in making their own informed decisions on food choice.
Appropriate adaptation strategies will be cooperatively developed in the three communities. These strategies will be of value for environmental and health-planning exercises throughout the Canadian north and potentially the circumpolar world in the face of climate related changes.

CINDY DICKSON is the Executive Director of the Arctic Athabaskan Council.