Alaska’s potential for increasing agricultural potential immense; hard work, clear vision needed

If you’ve visited a local farmers market recently, you’ll appreciate the bounty of delicious, healthy food that Alaska can produce when cultivated by knowledgeable, dedicated hands.

The prospects for increasing this bounty are immense. To take full advantage of our agricultural potential, we will need political will, consumer advocacy, recruitment and education of new farmers, financial support and incentives and a long-term vision. This vision, of course, will also need to take into account the changing climate in which Alaska farmers grow our food. 

Imagine a glacier that retreats, then expands for several years, only to retreat again, repeating this process over and over. Such has been the history of agriculture in Alaska. We’ve experienced several booms and busts of both enthusiasm and productivity since the early 1900s. 

Booms were the result of such things as co-development with gold mining, collaboration with local businesses, federal support of farming settlements and agricultural innovations. Busts came when challenges (that still exist today) got the better of farmers — the temptation to grow too big too fast,; unsustainable and mismanaged support mechanisms, high costs and resulting debt; competition from the Lower 48,infrastructure designed for resource development instead of agriculture, inexperience and being far from home, a lack of replacements for retiring farmers, and, of course, climate. 

Today, farmers and consumers are enjoying a boom of interest and enthusiasm around local foods. While it’s true that we send about 1.9 billion Alaska dollars out of the state each year to import food (which supplements the impressive $900 million worth of subsistence and personal-use foods), the good news is that direct sales between farmers and consumers are strong (13 times greater than the national average), Alaska farmers are notoriously tenacious and innovative, and demand continues to motivate increases in supply.

What we have now is a fantastic opportunity to throw a wrench into the boom/bust cycle, expand on the status quo and ultimately pump about $2 billion into, instead of out of, the Alaska economy each year — in effect, supporting the local farmers we know and love, strengthening our food system, lowering food costs, and increasing food security and resilience. 

Of course, strengthening our food system will require both short-term goals and long-term planning. When it comes to climate change and agriculture, we’ve got three courses of action to consider: 1. reduce our impact; 2. respond to current changes; and 3. prepare for future changes.

In the Lower 48, agriculture is a major contributor to climate change with high fossil fuel use (to manufacture pesticides and fertilizers, and to operate machinery) and greenhouse gas emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). 

In Alaska, however, the relative scales of agriculture and pest pressure are small. Our primary agriculturally related contribution to climate change is through the importation of approximately 95 percent of our food, which requires the burning of fossil fuels to power transport. Just think of the impact we could have if we expanded Alaska agriculture in thoughtful, sustainable ways to simultaneously produce more food and reduce total greenhouse gas emissions.

With respect to responding to current changes in Alaska’s climate and preparing for the future, we have a host of actions that are either already being taken or need to be taken. These actions should use the best natural, economic and social science information available. 

Such preparations include the conservation of arable land; crop diversification and expansion into new growing zones; anticipation of changes in water distribution and quality; measures to address changes in pest, disease and invasive species pressures; education and support of new farmers focused on sustainable agricultural development, and construction of weather-resistant food caches and transportation routes. 

Of course, in reality there is an even longer list of recommendations that can be made to strengthen Alaska’s food system, but all of these recommendations will need to be made in light of the climate changes we’re experiencing now and those that lie ahead. The Alaska Food Policy Council is dedicated to helping develop, share and advocate for policies that will result in an Alaska food system that is sustainable, resilient and healthy — and we ask our local, state, and federal leaders to tune in to the issues of food security and climate change and make them a priority. The health of our great state depends on it.

Liz Snyder and Victoria Briggs are co-chairs of the Alaska Food Policy Council, or AFPC. To learn more about food security in Alaska, find the following resources on the AFPC webpage (akfoodpolicycouncil.wordpress.com):

• Building Food Security in Alaska (a report commissioned by AFPC).

• A three-part series of articles on circumpolar agriculture by Stevenson et al. (2014) and

• An article entitled “Food in the Last Frontier” by Snyder and Meter (2015).

 

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