COVID-19 affected food systems and food security around the world, causing many people to recognize the vulnerability of the complex networks we depend on to cover our most basic needs. Indigenous peoples around the world are pushing for the right to feed themselves and be less dependent on industrial food systems.
Indigenous food webs recognize the intricate connections between how we obtain our food, what we choose to eat, and how these choices can affect our own health and that of the planet. For the Arctic, a just transition post-pandemic depends on understanding the region and its food supply through an Arctic lens. As Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann argues, that means looking beyond a push toward plant-based food.
Generations ago in Greenland, the Indigenous diet was composed almost entirely of animals. Even the most popular “vegetable,” as it was called, came from an animal: the stomach contents of the caribou, considered a delicacy. Today, a healthy, sustainable diet is increasingly assumed to emphasize plants—but not all plant-based diets are equally healthy, and this assumption overlooks the importance of being connected to your food supply.
No food tastes as sweet as it does after you’ve literally felt the weight of it on your shoulders. The sweetness and nourishment you derive from that caribou soup simmered over an aromatic crowberry fire—made with meat that you put your own blood, sweat and tears into obtaining—is indescribable. It’s more satisfying and energizing than the most luscious, cream-topped chocolate cupcake.
It’s important to describe this feeling because it contains the key to what we are missing in our modern reliance on industrial food systems—as well as what we are missing in terms of health when we do not eat foods from and in nature, and what we are missing in terms of sustainability when we do not feel the weight of the resources we use.
Image: The author skins a muskox with her uncle (Gideon Lyberth) and cousin (Karl Lyberth) at Angujaartorfik, Greenland, where her family has hunted since the 1950s.
In Greenland, we spend our summers hunting and fishing with our families. In 2017, the yearly hunting trip to Angujaartorfik (the summer hunting grounds for my family since the 1950s) also marked the start of my Greenland Diet Revolution research project. This project mapped out the microbes and parasites in foods associated with traditional caribou and muskox hunting practises. Dried meat, stomach contents of caribou, and parasites on the insides of caribou hides are all part of the traditional Inuit diet. This research is helping us understand that when we eat traditional Inuit foods, we are eating microbes from nature.
We are also realizing that some of the traditional dishes eaten by past generations, such as caribou stomach contents, must have been elemental for nutrition and health in Greenland’s original animal-sourced diet. When we analyse traditional Greenlandic foods—such as the dried capelin, a small fish caught in early summer and dried for the winter’s food supply—we observe that we eat a greater variety of microbes from capelin dried in nature versus the version dried industrially.
Image: A scenic view of Angujaartorfik, Greenland, the summer hunting grounds of the author's family.
Although bad microbes can make us sick, we need good ones to be healthy. In fact, we now know that our internal ecosystem, the gut microbiome, is elemental to our health and well-being. When we eat only industrialized foods, we are not feeding that microbiome. We are only now beginning to realize that the industrial food system’s control over microbes comes at a price: our health.
When you obtain food from nature, you relinquish control and rely on a trust-based collaboration with the environment. But for many generations, we have not trusted our environment. Nor have we acted in ways that would allow it to trust us, if it had such notions. When we assume that food is something to be made by strangers from ingredients around the world in places we will never see—and purchased in a store—we forego the chance to know or appreciate the resources it took to put that food in our mouths.
If we want to build a healthier, more sustainable planet post-pandemic, I believe we must begin with an understanding of how humans connect to nature and each other through food. As such, it does not make sense to draw hard lines between plant-based and animal-sourced foods. Both can be healthy and sustainable—and both can be the opposite. The question more worth pondering is: How do the many steps involved in commercial, industrial food systems keep us separated from nature?
Image: While his family hunts, an Inuit child in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada plays with a mini-sled he made to transport seal meat.
In fact, I think we risk overlooking important perspectives to enable a green recovery if we assume that the colour green must also describe the food on our plates.
When it comes to diet, a just transition in the Arctic means putting aside the conventional assumption that plant foods are intrinsically healthier and more sustainable than animal ones.
COVID-19 has made many of us think about the vulnerability of the systems that provide our most basic necessities, including foods and medicines. When industries and cities locked down in the spring, many people began to worry about direct access to food, which requires land, skills and time that few of us are fortunate enough to have.
But in the Arctic, many of us do have the privilege of direct access to foods that are nutritious, that connect us to our communities, and that are not dependent on vulnerable supply chains. I hope we can not only maintain and protect this privilege but make it a more integrated part of Arctic food systems.
AVIAJA LYBERTH HAUPTMANN was born and raised in Greenland and is of Inuit and Scandinavian descent. She is a postdoc and microbiologist with a specialty in microbial metagenomics.
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There are probably very few people on our planet who haven’t been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic—and it’s still not clear what the environmental, social, political, economic and health impacts will be in the months and years to come. While the world rushes to develop a vaccine, people everywhere are making efforts to strengthen their resilience and limit the effects of this novel, deadly virus.