Food Supplies in the Arctic

Longyearbyen Valley covered in snow with dark rocks showing through

Welcome to Spring! The sides of the Longyearbyen Valley are starting to get rockier, but there is still plenty of snow. This picture was taken at 2am a couple of weeks ago, and my dorm is the orange building in the center-left.

Greetings again from the far north! I’m now down to about one month left on Svalbard, so classes are wrapping up and we’re moving into the project and exam period. The sun is shining lots and the snow is still sticking around, but the lack of blooming flora (or basically any flora for that matter) makes it feel like a rather untraditional spring. My last few blog posts have been fairly broad explorations of sustainability here on Svalbard, so the goal of this post is to shed some light on a concrete initiative that is working to make food more sustainable.

As I’ve discussed earlier, the geographical isolation and climate of Svalbard makes importing food and growing food rather difficult endeavors. In addition, the food supply here is often in great flux and impacted by different events on the mainland. For example, the only two commercial airlines that fly to Svalbard are Norwegian Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), and a couple of weeks ago, the SAS pilots went on strike and shut the airline down for seven days. This was especially impactful for Svalbard because there were very few flights coming in and leaving, so many people couldn’t get here at all or were stuck here for much longer than planned. Besides inconveniences to travel itineraries, the one grocery store in town had a difficult time keeping the shelves stocked. Most non-perishable goods are shipped up here by boat, but everything fresh has to be flown in. Even so, there are estimates that on average, about 30-40% of all produce is thrown away upon arrival because it doesn’t survive the transport journey. This is obviously an absurd waste of both food and money, but to most people it is simply the unfortunate cost of living up here. However, Ben Vidmar disagrees with this, and he is instead finding ways to produce food locally with his Polar Permaculture business.

Two people dressed in winter gear sitting on top of snow cooking pancakes in small pan

Cooking pancakes on a bluff. The white dome in the center of the picture is the Polar Permaculture greenhouse.

As Ben says, getting “fresh food in an arctic desert” is no easy task. However, he is up for the challenge, and he has turned an old shipping container into a year-round hydroponic system that grows microgreens and herbs. He also built a dome greenhouse in 2016 that he uses during the summer months. As of now, Ben sells all of his produce to hotels and restaurants, but he wants to eventually expand to the grocery store as well. Ben has the goal of creating a “zero waste, circular economy,” so he collects back as much organic waste as possible to then be composted with the help of worms. But like many elements of food production on Svalbard, getting the worms up here posed a hurdle in themselves. There is no agricultural zoning or specific regulations on food production, so Ben had to instead abide by general rules that didn’t necessarily make sense in the context of agriculture. For example, it took him 1.5 years to get permission to import the worms, because environmental regulations prohibit the introduction of any new species to Svalbard. Though this rule is absolutely understandable and necessary, it still points to one of many difficulties of starting food production here. In the end, the best solution would be if people simply didn’t live here at all, therefore posing no need to produce or import any food, but realistically this won’t be happening anytime soon. In the meanwhile, it is commendable that Ben is finding sustainable food solutions in a place that is as unaccommodating as this.

One interesting thing about Svalbard that I’ve heard over and over again is that you don’t find people living here who don’t want to be here. It’s a pretty extreme climate to reside in, with cold temperatures and darkness for large chunks of the year, which makes it a rather select bunch that decided to stay here long term. With that in mind, I find it interesting that people still have a difficult time “getting things done” even in such a small community. Like anywhere else, there are many bureaucratic hoops to jump through along with other social and political frustrations. In terms of environmentalism, the university students (who make up more than a quarter of the town’s total population) are generally very active. UNIS only offers courses in Arctic Science, which means that all students have a certain understanding and regard for the changing climate. However, I think it has been difficult to sustain any continued and collaborative environmental endeavor due to the fact that most students are only here for a single semester. This constant flux of students definitely has an impact on the local community, and it’s difficult to imagine how this could improve in the coming years. Regardless, I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this community, and I hope to continue my involvement even after I physically leave Svalbard.

Large flat, government boat with letter H in yellow circle in Arctic waters

My class got to spend a day on the Polarsyssel, which is the government boat of Svalbard. We were mainly focused on the surrounding geology, but it was neat to tour the boat and learn a bit about it.

Leave a Reply