Meagan Wohlberg
Meagan Wohlberg

Rethinking Northern Meat

With northern wildlife in crisis, food security advocates say farmed animals could pick up the slack — if it was legal to sell it.

With caribou in decline across the Northwest Territories, hunting bans in place and increased pressures on wildlife from harvesters, industry and climate change, food security advocates in the territory say we need a new system in place to fill the void.

For Jackie Milne, head of the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River, an easy solution involves Northerners raising their own animals to supplement a lack of country foods and provide affordable and healthy alternatives to grocery-bought meat.

“We desperately need this,” she says. “Animal systems — adapted, northern species that can feed us and that we can take care of — are the quickest way for us to make a meaningful change in how we feed ourselves.”

The problem is, doing so as a business model is currently illegal.

There's no time like the present for an alternative model that would let people raise a small number of animals, from rabbits to reindeer, and sell that meat to their communities

While other provinces and regions, including northern B.C., have small-scale abattoir licensing programs that regulate the slaughter of animals for marketable consumption, such laws don't exist in the Northwest Territories.

That means people can raise and eat their own cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and rabbits — you name it — but can't legally sell that meat to others.

“Currently there is no licensing in place specific to the sale of meat,” says Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the department of Industry, Tourism and Investment.

“That’s not to say it’s not in the plans for the future, but there’s a lot of things to look into in regards to defining the regulatory and policy structures around food safety, to best serve industry and public,” he said, adding that numerous government departments would be working on that design.

With a growing caribou crisis in the North and grocery prices skyrocketing thanks to the falling loonie, Milne says there is no time like the present for an alternative model that would allow people to raise a small number of animals, from rabbits to reindeer, and sell that meat to their communities.

“We’re not talking industrial scale here, but it’s an attainable scale,” she says. “This could be duplicated out into multiple communities in the Northwest Territories, giving us the ability to raise our own animals, control what they’re eating, provide food for ourselves and sell it if we wanted to to other local people, restaurants, or even the local store.”

NFTI has an ever-expanding herd of cows, goats, sheep, chickens and pigs at their farm campus near Hay River, from Icelandic sheep to Dexter-Galloway cows, all specially selected to thrive in a northern climate.

A small-scale abattoir licence would essentially allow them or other operators to process a certain number of animals or amount of meat, ensuring the animals are disease-free, slaughtered in a humane way and processed to be safe for consumption. Those operators would have to be trained and certified.

Milne is clear that she is not opposed to hunting, which is an integral part of Indigenous culture and livelihood in the North, but believes a sustainable domestic meat production system in the territory could supplement people’s diets where meat is currently unavailable or too expensive, as well as providing jobs.

“In some cases it’s totally sustainable to wild harvest, so do it. But in other places where it isn’t and you say stop hunting, you have nothing else to eat. You’re forced to go to the grocery store, which you can’t afford,” she says. “The point is, how do we take pressure off and maintain our diet preferences? We need to have domestic systems in place that we can rely on to take up the slack.”

Apart from it being an important aspect of Northern culture, Milne says meat and other animal products are necessary if you want to eat local and survive in the North, as other sources of protein like nuts and legumes don’t grow well in this climate.

“Yes, grow a garden, but if you have a garden here, realistically that garden will only contribute 25 per cent of your calorie needs for a year, because the really calorie-dense foods tend to come from animal products,” Milne says.

While others in more urban areas are moving away from meat and dairy due to the links between the industrial food system and climate change, Milne says raising animals sustainably can actually contribute positively to the environment.

“Animals should be raised in a nature-mimicking fashion, and it’s wrong what’s been done to animals and because of that, they are now contributing to pollution,” she says. “So if we aren’t happy with the current industrial food system, we have to build the one we want.”