Taking the Lead in Northern Research

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Canada’s North has always conjured visions of great white expanses, majestic animals and hardy inhabitants. In reality the great white expanses are slowly melting, the majestic animals are struggling for survival as their habitats slowly disappear, and a new report released on March 27, 2014 by the Council of Canadian Academies found that the Inuit, those hardy inhabitants, are the most food insecure people in the developed world. In keeping with the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ mandate, researchers are creating sustainable solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing Canada’s North—natural resource protection, food security and health.

Capacity building for environmental protection

For the most part universities are producing graduates with excellent book smarts but a limited understanding of the complexity of real-world environmental processes, which handicaps their ability to apply their knowledge to the diverse economic, political and social factors shaping natural resource use and environmental stewardship.

Murray Humphries, professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and lead researcher on a $1.6-million grant from NSERC’s  Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program, considers comprehensive training the foundation for sending a “market-ready” generation of natural resource consultants, managers, land use planners and policy makers into the workforce.

“As industrial activity expands in Canada’s northern regions, whether it is mineral exploration and mine development in Nunavut or commercial forestry in northern Alberta, we need to be prepared to develop these resources in a way that is environmentally sound and sustainable,” says Humphries. “Northern development is dictated by a triangle, with industry, government and Aboriginal organizations situated in three corners, and sustainable solutions found in the middle. Time well spent in each of the corners will equip our trainees with the knowledge and relationships required for career-long contributions to the productive middle ground.”

With nodes at McGill and the University of Alberta, CREATE graduates will have their core training and thesis work in environmental sciences (including conservation, wildlife management, aquatic ecology, terrestrial ecology, forestry, biodiversity, environmental contaminants) and will engage in interdisciplinary science linking mathematics, physical sciences, computer science, economics, business, law, health sciences and cultural studies through ongoing collaborative research. The program will focus on northern regions characterized by a gradient of industrial intensity, from the oil sands and commercial forests of northern Alberta to early-phase mineral exploration and mine development in Nunavut.

Recruiting Indigenous students and northern residents into the program is a priority, as research and natural resource policy will be shaped by local concerns and priorities. Humphries’ close ties to the North, both through his research in sustainable northern development and as Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE), make him well positioned  to respond to local concerns. “We will follow the lead of the communities, so that everyone benefits,” says Humphries.

Access to fresh foods

Access to fresh food is a major problem in northern regions, where prices can be up to 200% higher than in the south. This is mainly due to the food distribution system, as a large percentage of products are brought in by truck or plane, resulting in increased fuel and storage costs. Producing food in situ would substantially decrease dependency on imported goods and likely be more affordable, of higher quality and have a longer shelf life, which in turn would contribute to a healthier diet.

Bioresource engineer Mark Lefsrud and his team have risen to the challenge and have developed a solution for growing local food in the North—a hybrid greenhouse/growth-chamber system that is adapted to northern conditions.

This innovative unit, called the Canadian Integrated Northern Greenhouse (CING) (patent pending), behaves as a greenhouse through the growing season, but transforms into a growth chamber during the cold, dark months, benefiting from both the energy of the sun during the warm season, and increased insulation when supplemental energy is required to sustain crop production during the winter. The hybrid system is housed in a modified shipping container which can be readily transported north. Vertical farming principles maximize the use of available space, using motorized hydroponic systems that track the sun through the day, with LED arrays providing photosynthetically active radiant lighting.

This special agricultural facility has the potential to be the world’s most volume- and energy-efficient enclosed food production system, and will enable Indigenous and mining communities in the North to benefit from locally produced food year-round.

Improving health and nutrition in Canada’s North

Northern communities have experienced dramatic lifestyle changes over the years. Changes in the diet and physical activity of Indigenous peoples, due to an increased reliance on foods shipped from the south and less availability of traditional foods, have significantly affected their health. The International Polar Year Inuit Health Survey, conducted in 2007-2008 in 36 northern communities, showed that 35% of the adult population was obese, while children aged 3 to 5 years had an obesity rate of 50.8%. These high obesity rates are leading to increasingly serious health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In the last decade, Cree communities in northern Quebec have experienced a 150% increase in the number of people over 20 with type II diabetes where almost 20% of the population suffers from this condition. Compounding these health problems is the limited number of practitioners providing health care services. Remote native communities generally face a high turnover of health care staff and lack access to dietitians, especially those familiar with traditional foods and northern peoples.

Working in cooperation with native Boards of Health, the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition’s Stage Program hopes to place dietetics students in six-week internships where they will be able to assist the overburdened system in northern native communities through improved health care service while at the same time gaining first-hand experience in working in isolated communities, understanding the unique health and nutrition problems of native people, and learning how to apply or adapt their academic and clinical knowledge to real-life problems.

“Not only will this program respond to a need expressed by Aboriginal peoples for participatory research and education to address their concerns about traditional food systems and the impacts of changing lifestyles and health,” says Dr. Maureen Rose, the School’s Clinical Coordinator for Professional Practice in Dietetics, “it also increases the potential for students to work in the North post-graduation and identifies students in local communities who might like to pursue a dietetics program.”

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