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Igloolik: Food (in)security in an Arctic Inuit community

Igloolik's food system has shifted from harvested traditional foods to a dual system combining these with store-bought imported food. But food insecurity remains and some adaptive capacity was lost.
Benjamin Herazo

Case study basic information

Location: Nunavut, Canada

Drivers: climate, geopolitical, extractive industries and infrastructure, tourism, shipping


In Igloolik, an Arctic Canadian hamlet of about 1500 people, aproximately 95% of the population is Inuit. Igloolik is situated on an island, surrounded by arctic tundra environment. The community has an economy based on waged employment and subsistence hunting. These traditional harvesting activities (such as hunting, fishing and gathering) are not only essential to the population for food procurement, they also represent the most socially and culturally relevant activity for the community (3, 6): “Eating what Inuit hunt is at the very core of what means to be Inuit. When they can no longer hunt what is on the sea-ice their entire existence as a people is threatened” (9).

As for many indigenous arctic communities, with the development of tighter connections with the western world from the 1950’s, Igloolik’s food system has expanded to become dual: food security is both determined by harvested traditional foods (e.g. seals, walrus, caribou) and store-bought foods imported from mainland Canada (3, 6, 7). Factors such as the introduction of wage economy, changes in socio-cultural norms, e.g. the individualization of hunting and increased commercialization of harvesting, together with economic development and transportation improvement, contributed to this shift (4, 10).

In Igloolik, access, availability and utilization of food, the three determinants of food security (5), are subject to multiple changes, both biophysical and socio-economical, causing the community to face episodes of food insecurity (2, 3, 7). Biophysical changes include the impacts of contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants on fishes and sea mammals, which have generated anxiety over traditional food consumption. Climate change impacts, especially loss of sea ice and changes in weather patterns, also undermine food security by altering the accessibility and the availability of traditional foods (4).

Along with environmental changes, socio-economic processes have also changed food habits and affected the food security of Igloolik’s inhabitants. In particular Inuit food economics have gone through two key transformations. The first one is the development of mining, tourism and shipping activities, which has encouraged demand for both store-bought food and for harvested goods. The second one is the increased importance of financial resources for guaranteeing food security, these being necessary for buying food in stores and for acquiring hunting equipment, such as snowmobile, boats, or rifles (1, 8). These two trends contributed to traditional food being increasingly sold as opposed to the traditional way of harvesting for subsistence and sharing within the community and with other communities (3).

Although economic development has allowed for more diverse livelihoods, it has also created disparity within groups and eroded Inuit culture: loss of traditional knowledge and land-based skills has been observed among younger Inuit generations in Igloolik, especially among those who hunt part-time (1). Besides, the emission of toxic pollutants from industrial and shipping activities further aggravates the risk of contaminants in traditional foods (6). Increasing reliance on store-bought food also means that global economic market fluctuations in price of food and other commodities (e.g. gasoline, extracted minerals) influence Inuit families’ ability to access food (1, 6). Moreover, while imported food can provide alternatives source of food supply, irregular deliveries can aggravate food insecurity (2).

At the same time, the introduction and spreading of “western” values and knowledge have led to more individualistic harvesting practices, preferences for store-bought food and lack of interest in traditional culture and activities (including language), among others. This has contributed to the erosion of Inuit knowledge, affecting the skillset necessary to harvest, the social processes of sharing food, equipment, and commodities, as well as the know-how for preparing, storing, and cooking traditional food. Meanwhile, store-bought food has had public health implications, since it does not necessarily encourage healthy diets (4).

Political processes have also affected Inuit food security, especially when there has been a mismatch between different levels of governance. Examples include hunting bans on protected species and the introduction of wildlife regulations, which reduce the flexibility of harvesting by controlling what can be harvested, when and where for specific species (10).

While access to store-bought foods could, in theory, have provided the Igloolik community with alternative sources of food in times of scarcity and rapid environmental change, the present case shows that increased dependence on store-bought food can also erode adaptive capacity by inducing a loss of traditional livelihoods and practices, such as harvested food sharing, and of the social and traditional knowledge associated with harvesting activities.

Methods and Tools

The methodology for this case study was desk study and experts interview. Sources include mainly journal articles, which rely on both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The information collected for the case is organized according to a template specially developed to capture information from a socio-ecological resilience perspective (the template can be found under further resources).

This case is one of the cases compiled across the Arctic to inform a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) of socio-ecological regime shifts in the Arctic that will feature in the final Arctic Resilience Report. The QCA methodology allows for a holistic view of cases in an extended geographic region and for addressing multiple causality. The QCA analysis will contribute to identify patterns that will allow for further analysis across the cases.

Lessons Learnt

  • When new food systems (here store-bought food) are introduced in communities with traditional livelihoods, these need to be integrated with traditional food systems in order to enhance food security rather than weaken it and to support, rather than erode, social capital and adaptive capacity.
  • Political decisions demanded and taken in distant locations can have negative impacts on the food security of Arctic Indigenous peoples.
  • The introduction of new food systems can introduce new risks to food security, e.g. risks linked to the lack of financial capital to buy expensive store food, risks to health, risks linked to irregular delivery, and risks of losing harvesting knowledge and skills.


  1. Laidler, G. J., J. D. Ford, W. A. Gough, T. Ikummaq, A. S. Gagnon, S. Kowal, K. Qrunnut, and C. Irngaut. 2009. Travelling and hunting in a changing Arctic: Assessing Inuit vulnerability to sea ice change in Igloolik, Nunavut. Climatic Change 94(3-4):363-397.
  2. Arctic Council. 2013. Arctic Resilience Interim Report 2013. Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden.
  3. Ford, J. D., and M. Beaumier. 2011. Feeding the family during times of stress: Experience and determinants of food insecurity in an Inuit community. The Geographical Journal 177(1):44-61.
  4. Ford, J.D., T. Pearce, F. Duerden, C. Furgal, and B. Smit. 2010. Climate change policy responses for Canada’s Inuit population: The importance of and opportunities for adaptation. Global Environmental Change 20(1): 177-191.
  5. FAO. 1999. The state of food insecurity in the world. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy.
  6. Ford, J. D., and L. Berrang-Ford. 2009. Food security in Igloolik, Nunavut: an exploratory study. Polar Record 45(03):225-236.
  7. Ford, J. D. 2008. Vulnerability of Inuit food systems to food insecurity as a consequence of climate change: a case study from Igloolik, Nunavut. Regional Environmental Change 9(2):83-100.
  8. Peters, C. J., N. L. Bills, J. L. Wilkins, and G. W. Fick. 2009. Foodshed analysis and its relevance to sustainability. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 24(1):1-7.
  9. Grid-Arendal and Inuit Circumpolar Conference: “A changing climate threatens the Inuit” blogpost on Environment Times,
  10. Myers H., Fast H., Kislalioglu Berkes M. and Berkes F. 2005. “Feeding the family in times of change” in Berkes F., Fast H., Manseau M. and Diduck A. (eds), Breaking ice: renewable resource and ocean management in the Canadian North, University of CalgaryPress, Calgary, pp. 23–47.


This ARA case study was elaborated by Students from the 2015 “Systems Theory and Resilience Thinking” course at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University): Hanna Kylin, Rawaf Al Rawaf, Daniele Crimella, Cornelia Ludwig.

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