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Adapting food systems to climate change

A tent in the grasslands of Canada's north

Photo: Richard Meldrum

Ryerson University researchers are working hand-in-hand with Indigenous communities to address the dual challenges of food security and climate change adaptation in northern Canada. Professors Eric Liberda, a toxicologist, and Richard Meldrum, a microbiologist, both from Ryerson’s School of Occupational and Public Health, have undertaken collaborative projects with Fort Albany First Nation in northern Ontario since 2011.  

Professor Liberda says the partnership started with an initiative called Sharing the Harvest. What began as an examination of the impacts of climate change on waterfowl migration – as geese are an important part of Fort Albany residents’ traditional diet – has since expanded to other projects to help address food security issues, including developing a community freezer for hunted meats and the planting of community gardens.   

Professor Liberda says that food, especially imported fresh vegetables and fruits, can be extremely expensive there. In the face of changes to the environment and their food sources, the community wanted to explore growing fresh crops. The researchers initiated a pilot study to see if this could be done in a sustainable way that would improve food security, and their results were published in a chapter of the book Sustainable Solutions for Food Security.

They found that employing agroforestry — a stewardship practice that combines woody perennials with crops in arrangements where the plants benefit each other, as well as the soil and biodiversity — was most productive with respect to potato and bean yields. Work has expanded to backyard gardens, with residents continuing to see what produce will work best. This year, over 300 pounds of produce were harvested.

“Given climate change and its effects in the north, which is actually a warming effect in this case, the thought is that ‘Well, perhaps now we can grow certain kinds of crops that we haven’t been able to grow before,’” said professor Liberda.

Professors Liberda and Meldrum stress the end goals for the community are adaptation to climate change and reducing reliance on imported fruits and vegetables. The aim of the current approach is the harmonization of traditional harvesting and agroforestry activities into one local, sustainable food system. This includes utilizing by-products of the game bird harvest to enrich the soil.

Food security for the community doesn’t just entail less expensive access to fresh food, but also ensuring the food is safe for consumption. Professor Liberda further examined issues from a toxicology viewpoint, working with the community to identify soil contamination, and even helping facilitate a swap from lead-based to non-toxic ammunition to avoid contaminating hunted meat.  

Professor Meldrum was brought on board to look for avian flu in the local bird population, and has since contributed his bacterial expertise to other projects, such as testing compost made from goose remains to ensure that the crops wouldn’t be contaminated. This research has been published in journals such as BMC Public Health, Rural and Remote Health and the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

Today, professor Meldrum remains tangentially involved while professor Liberda makes frequent trips to the north, though the initial Sharing the Harvest program has been largely handed over to the community. Professor Liberda says the Indigenous principle of “Two-Eyed Seeing”, which was coined by Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall, has inspired how he has conducted the research, with one eye that keeps Western science in mind and the other with Indigenous knowledge.  

“Since this was designed hand-in-hand with the community, they’ve been able to take over this project; they want this project, and it’s operating all on its own now. Without that aspect, it wouldn’t be possible to keep it going,” he said.  

“It’s what they need, not what we need,” said professor Meldrum.  

While climate change has opened up the possibilities of growing more crops in the subarctic, they note that there are negative impacts as well, particularly around transportation challenges, changes in waterfowl migration and more.  

“This is an adaptation to that in terms of, ‘How can we increase our food security in the face of this modified environment?’” said professor Liberda.  

Other communities in places like Labrador and even Australia are now interested in launching similar programs to the one that professors Liberda and Meldrum, along with other institutional and community colleagues, have helped pioneer in Fort Albany.  

Support for these projects and research has been provided by Health Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.