Revitalizing Arctic Indigenous food systems through inclusive, transdisciplinary approaches
Average temperatures in the Arctic are rising at a rate of almost three times the global average. At the same time, its Indigenous populations are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Despite research into these issues, Arctic Indigenous communities struggle to respond and maintain access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods. “Inclusive, transdisciplinary and action-orientated research that acknowledges the complexity of Arctic food systems is crucial,” says Utrecht University’s Silja Zimmermann, lead author of a recent study in Sustainability Science carried out in collaboration with the Ecosystem Conservation Office of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.
Arctic Indigenous communities often still rely on traditional subsistence practices like fishing and hunting to provide a large part of their food, but a changing climate and loss of biodiversity are seriously threatening these practices. And with communities often residing in isolated areas, access to commercial food sources can be minimal. This decline in local supply also decreases food sovereignty— communities are becoming increasingly dependent on the outside world and its market structures to meet their needs.
To develop a broad understanding of the complex, interconnected food system challenges facing Arctic Indigenous communities, researchers from Utrecht University, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Ecosystem Conservation Office and Leuphana University carried out a systematic review of 526 scientific articles on Arctic Indigenous food systems published between 1998 and 2021. They identified three research directions of particular importance to help enable a sustainable future for Arctic Indigenous food systems.
To achieve true sustainability in Arctic Indigenous food systems, it is crucial that Indigenous voices and knowledge systems are respected and elevated in research projects
Decolonizing sustainability research is crucial
The first important conclusion is that inclusive approaches that bridge Western and Indigenous knowledge remain underrepresented in Arctic Indigenous food system research. The decolonization of research practices, therefore, is crucial for Indigenous communities to increase their influence on transformational change. Indigenous knowledge and practices should be at the center of sustainability transitions in the Arctic, rather than an afterthought, says lead author Silja Zimmermann, a PhD researcher at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development and the Centre for Complex Systems Studies. “To achieve true sustainability in Arctic Indigenous food systems, it is crucial that Indigenous voices and knowledge systems are respected and elevated in research projects.”
Acknowledging the complexity of Arctic Indigenous food systems
Secondly, the researchers argue that recognizing various levels of systemic interdependencies can empower transformative change. Arctic Indigenous food systems are complex, and approaches from complex systems science can be very useful to understand them and facilitate a transformation towards sustainability. Zimmermann elaborates, “A better understanding of complex systems requires a holistic approach that considers not only the sum of a systems parts, but also their interdependencies and feedbacks. Indigenous worldviews are often holistic and can foster complex systems thinking.”
We need to work together, across different disciplines and with Indigenous communities, to develop concrete strategies and solutions that prioritize sustainability in Arctic Indigenous food systems
A transdisciplinary focus is needed
Finally, the authors argue that action-oriented research collaborations that aim to justly and effectively intervene in Arctic Indigenous food systems to make them more sustainable must be transdisciplinary. The complexity of these systems calls for an approach that integrates knowledge from across different disciplines and knowledge systems, and the urgency of the transition towards sustainability requires a focus on concrete actions. Zimmermann notes, “We need to work together, across different disciplines and with Indigenous communities, to develop concrete strategies and solutions that prioritize sustainability in Arctic Indigenous food systems.”
About Tipping the Iceberg
The publication is part of a larger research project, Tipping the Iceberg, a collaboration between Utrecht University and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. The transdisciplinary project aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of the complex interdependencies of the food system and potential for sustainability transformations on the small island in Alaska’s Bering Sea. The goal is to leverage a transition towards increased food security and sustainability with and for the Indigenous community on the island.
Zimmermann, S., Dermody, B. J., Theunissen, B., Wassen, M. J., Divine, L. M., Padula, V. M., ... & Dorresteijn, I. (2023). A leverage points perspective on Arctic Indigenous food systems research: a systematic review. Sustainability Science, 1-20.