Alaska, Food Security, and Climate Change

People may think about Law and the Bioscienes as involving only genetics, neuroscience, stem cells, or other sexy high tech issues.  But agriculture, the environment, and other fields can fall within its ambit, including food security, especially in the world of climate change.

After law school, I had the privilege of clerking for the Alaska Supreme Court in Anchorage. My family was from Montana and I knew that I sort of wanted to go, from Michigan, “up and to the left,” but literally forgot Alaska satisfied those desiderata until midway through the application process.[1] I’m still wrestling with which was more rewarding: working for the court system or exploring the rest of the state. There’s a long-running joke that Anchorage is only 15 minutes from Alaska; it might not be that funny, but everyone gets the point and heads out of town for the weekends.

We moved there in summer, when the farmers’ markets were in full bloom, literally and figuratively. People often seem surprised that Alaska has farmers’ markets. Isn’t it too cold to grow anything? Well, there are 1000-pound pumpkins. Because daylight during the summer can be as long as 20 hours in the southern part of the state—or 24 hours on the north coast—produce does quite well. Tomatoes don’t because it’s not warm enough, but leafy greens thrive. And there are greenhouses for tomatoes, anyway.

While it’s easy enough to get food in Anchorage—and Juneau and Fairbanks—it can be challenging in the rest of the state. Thousands of Alaskans live off the road system, so food has to be flown or shipped in. A bottle of orange juice in the western town of Bethel is over $10. Milk is a non-starter, not just for weight, but also for perishability. Produce that comes from South America is past its prime while still in the grocery store. And that’s in Anchorage. Rural villages have little to nothing in the way of produce, simply because it would take too long to get it there.

Climate change complicates the picture, mostly in a negative way. On the one hand, it is becoming increasingly feasible to grow produce outside. But this silver lining is far outweighed by the perils. National Geographic recently ran a story about traditional whale hunters in Barrow, who spear, if lucky, a single whale that lasts all winter. The whale is stored in cellars 10-12 feet deep, which preserve the meat for the months that it must last. As temperatures have risen, the permafrost has thawed, the cellars have leaked, and the meat has spoiled. There are no low-boys to store the whale in these indigenous villages, and so winter starvation looms as a serious risk.[2]

Off the road system, too, transportation is easier in the winter. Hopefully none of our eminent readership has seen Ice Road Truckers—or much of the rest of the Alaska-themed reality dynasty—but the simple point is that the tundra is harder when it’s cold, thus making it more passable. To the extent that food can be delivered in this way—and, per above, it often can’t—shorter winters are bad news. A lot of the indigenous hunters make more progress in winter, too, because the lakes and rivers are all frozen and passable by snow machine. (Not, as I was corrected, snow mobile.) If the nearest moose hunting ground is 100 miles away, that’s a five hour ride in the winter and virtually un-doable in summer because of all the braided rivers and the difficulty in portaging boats. So winters are important, not just for preserving food but, in some cases, for acquiring it; not all, of course, as salmon only run through flowing water.

A really interesting development, though, is an Anchorage-based group that is turning shipping containers into hydroponic farms. They’re heavily insulated, and can provide year-round vegetables to rural communities. They can even be powered by solar—maybe the darkest of winters nixes this upside, but Alaska at least has a high percentage of sun per daylight hours; i.e., it is not a very cloudy place overall. The containers run $100,000, which could be surprisingly good value: the maintenance is low, the durability is high, and they provide a substantial amount of food.

For the past two years, I have participated in a volunteer program—sponsored by the IRS—that takes us to rural villages and provides tax assistance for the residents. It is an amazing way to see a part of the world that would otherwise be completely inaccessible. But, so far from 2000 calories for $5 at McDonald’s, it makes you think about fundamental human needs and associated challenges. Many of the villagers are on subsistence lifestyles: on the most recent trip, we got to eat caribou, walrus, and whale, all freshly hunted. As the world changes—and as bizarre as it may seem—locally-grown tomatoes might replace some of these staples.

[1] My co-fellow, Roland Nadler, is clerking in Maine next year, so our group is big on the “up and to the [left/right].”

[2] When I was clerking, we bought a cow-share, which is usually disbursed around Thanksgiving. The point is that it’s supposed to be cold enough to leave it outside for the winter in coolers, thus giving a family six months to work through it. But the temperatures were still too warm and, with no space to take delivery, the purveyor had to delay slaughter. Substantially less perilous, but another example.