Food Innovation in Canada’s North: The case for a social enterprise clusterAn Action Canada Task Force report
Canada’s northern communities have some of the country’s most severe rates of food insecurity. With rates in Nunavut (18.5 percent), the Northwest Territories (4.4 percent) and Yukon (3.7 percent) far exceeding the national average (2.6 percent), the Council of Canadian Academies has classified the state of our northern food insecurity as a crisis.
Considering that Canada’s North exports nearly $800 million in fish and other marine products annually to international markets, there are considerable opportunities to boost domestic commercial food production and innovation to meet local food needs as a means of tackling food insecurity. However, the northern foods value chain faces a host of social, economic, logistical and political obstacles fueled by fragmented industries with little to no co-ordination or communication.
In recognition of this, the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) is considering establishing an Arctic Food Innovation Cluster (AFIC) with the goal of boosting the North’s competitiveness in food industries and, in doing so, improving its food security rates by connecting northern entrepreneurs, southern-based investors/businesses, and relevant actors (e.g., northern Indigenous communities, governments, research centres) with knowledge and interest in northern food industries.
In support of this initiative, our Task Force conducted a preliminary study of the feasibility of an AFIC in Canada. The intent of such a cluster is to advance increased access to affordable, culturally informed, healthy food across northern regions. The cluster’s secondary objective is to foster further innovations within the North’s commercial food production industry via new food production methods (e.g., full utilization of harvested fish), value chains, and/or governance models. This would, in turn, boost local economic development opportunities within these northern communities.
This study does not claim to be exhaustive and is intended to be a preliminary analysis of the feasibility of the cluster concept within Canada’s North. Our report’s assumptions were primarily:
- That there was sufficient interest from the federal government, including potential interest in providing some degree of funding to such an initiative.
- That a cluster model would potentially help alleviate food insecurity and boost regional economic development.
After conducting 30 key informant interviews, the project team found that the main obstacles facing Canada’s northern food chain were:
- money (e.g., the accessibility of public and availability of private financing);
- people (e.g., limited labour pools, a lack of communication and strong relationships between stakeholders throughout the food value chain); and
- place (e.g., insufficient transportation, infrastructure and distribution, regulatory barriers).
However, a number of strengths were also highlighted:
- the North’s strong community and social capital;
- specialized local knowledge;
- some communities’ experience in selling unique northern food products; and
- the particularity of the northern brand.
After extensive reading and consultation with food value chain stakeholders, the project team arrived at the following recommendations as a blueprint for an AFIC in Canada:
- Consider establishing a cluster that is not exclusively composed of food chain stakeholders but rather incorporates other community entities also impacted by the same challenges, such as transportation. This would allow the cluster to propose solutions that offer re-investment in community and broad social benefits.
- Consider “social enterprise” as a core theme for Canada’s northern cluster. This would mean designing a cluster where personnel and participants are selected for their familiarity with and commitment to social enterprise models that have proven to be well adapted to the constraints of the North. This could also mean that social enterprise solutions such as public/private infrastructure ownership or micro-financing might be used as tools for cluster solutions.
- Continue work on and research into the feasibility and implementation of an AFIC. While a traditional cluster, based strictly on market factors, is unlikely to work in the North, a modified cluster model leveraging social catalysts could be beneficial by providing a funding mechanism that addresses some of the financing issues raised by our respondents.
- Designate an interim cluster CEO or lead researcher to continue research and stakeholder outreach full time. The designated individual will need knowledge of Canada’s northern and remote communities, the Indigenous context and cluster design, as well as ideally having experience working in contexts that are not strictly profit motivated.
- Identify local community partners outside the food value chain who might benefit from this cluster and engage with them.
- Formalize and action a plan for engaging Indigenous and local communities.
- Formalize a plan for addressing each of the seven key questions suggested by our research.