How Indigenous communities can establish food security in a changing climate

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This week:

  • How Indigenous communities can establish food security in a changing climate
  • Automobiles nowadays have a weight problem
  • The kids are not alright: How young people are dealing with increasing climate anxiety

How Indigenous communities can establish food security in a changing climate

An Indigenous woman stands amid large stalks of corn.
Dawn Morrison is the founder and curator of research and relationships for the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty in B.C. (Laura Lynch/CBC)

One of the many effects of climate change is that it is leading to food insecurity in Indigenous communities across Canada

For example, bird species that traditionally disperse plant seeds to new sprouting locations are becoming less common due to changing weather patterns, while invasive species are threatening traditional resources that Indigenous communities obtain from the land. This has led to an over-reliance on expensive imported — and often processed — foods that exacerbate health issues in those communities.

However, one group says there’s a homegrown solution to this problem: Indigenous food sovereignty. 

It’s a way to “respond to our own needs for food the way our ancestors did for thousands of years,” said Dawn Morrison, founder and curator of research and relationships for the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (WGIFS) in B.C. 

Morrison, who is 61 and of Secwépemc ancestry, was born a few years after her mom finished residential school. Morrison’s family was employed in the low-paying orchard industry as fruit-pickers, and during this time, Morrison experienced the effects of insecurity firsthand, as they struggled to put food on the table. (As a result of the family’s poverty, Morrison was almost taken in the Sixties Scoop.)

WGIFS is currently developing a toolkit to promote strategies and methods from a variety of Indigenous nations to help communities achieve self-sufficiency when it comes to food production. 

While more details will be revealed at a later date, part of that work is being done through the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Circle, a small garden on Vancouver Island that houses traditional foods and plants from a multitude of Indigenous cultures. Examples include rosehips, pumpkins and tomatoes, which are historically important to Coast Salish, Native-American and Aztec cultures, respectively. 

The garden is housed in Strathcona Park, a place Morrison says is culturally significant for several reasons. Long ago, it was a huge marshland that provided Coast Salish foods, medicines and fish-bearing streams. Today, it’s situated beside an industrial hub for food distribution.

“It’s probably the only area in all of the province that’s electrically wired to house this many food distributors,” Morrison told What on Earth host Laura Lynch. “So, about 40 to 60 per cent of all the food that goes in and gets transported across B.C. comes through this corridor on Malkin Avenue.”

The juxtaposition is striking considering that transportation accounts for 19 per cent of food system emissions in Canada; locally grown food reduces those emissions significantly. It’s one of the main benefits that Indigenous food sovereignty provides in the fight against climate change. 

Another benefit is its ability to adapt to extreme weather. One method Morrison and her group have implemented in the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Circle is the chinampa, or “floating gardens.” It’s an ancient Aztec agricultural system where areas of fertile soil are built up into mounds either over large bodies of water or on flood-prone areas, with deep canals on the perimeter that collect water. 

The system is drought-resistant as it uses less water than traditional irrigation. It’s also flood-resistant, as additional water collects in the canals and is only absorbed by the plants when needed.

“This is also in the Amazon rainforest,” Morrison said. “There are books written on how the Indigenous peoples built up soil in the river systems where it was just all flooded. They built up mounds of soil like this and were able to grow food.”

The ability to utilize Indigenous climate adaptation strategies from around the world is more than just a passion project for Morrison — it’s a means of moving away from colonial approaches to food security and unpacking years of intergenerational trauma.

“Sometimes I get really tired,” Morrison admitted. But she calls the Indigenous Sovereignty Circle a form of healing. “This is like taking back space for Indigenous foods and community.”

Some of Morrison’s fondest memories occurred in a garden, where she says her mother was happiest. It’s one of the reasons Morrison turned to studying horticulture and ethnobotany.

“I just always remembered how peaceful it felt to be with the plants and to be with my mom and Mother Earth,” Morrison said. “This is the depth and the beauty of what has transformed a lot of that trauma, and what happens when we come to the garden here and do land-based learning. It will always be what brings the people together.”

Dannielle Piper

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. 

Check out our radio show and podcast. It’s been a long summer of wildfires and Canada is struggling to keep up. This week, we’ll hear from a former firefighter turned professor who says we will need more people on the job and an approach that helps prevent, not just combat, the flames. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

Watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here.

Reader feedback

Leanne Allison: 

“Your article on plastic-free plastic got me thinking about my all-time plastic pet peeve. For a few years now, it’s been possible to get laundry detergent in concentrated sheets that come in a small cardboard sleeve. They work great and they are perfect for travelling. I recently saw toilet bowl cleaners that are similar. Shouldn’t this mean that we can eliminate TONS of large plastic detergent jugs? Think of all the plastic that could be eliminated! Why do we continue to use plastic when there are better alternatives available?”

Vivian Unger:

“Thanks for the piece on bioplastics. Just to compound the difficulty, some bioplastics can be composted in your backyard composter, while many more require industrial composting. For example (and here, I’d like to give a shout-out to one of my favourite Canadian companies), Camino chocolate bars have an interior transparent wrapper. Green lettering on the wrapper says that it is made out of wood and is fully compostable. I’ve been putting these wrappers in my backyard composter for years and have never had a problem.

“In contrast, Humble Chips come in a bag that is said to be compostable. But when I put it in my backyard composter, I find big chunks of bag in my compost months later. I conclude that the Humble Chip bag doesn’t do well in backyard composters. It’s probably better to send it to

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The Big Picture: Cars nowadays have a weight problem

A large gold SUV in a showroom.
A Mitsubishi compact SUV called XForce is seen at an auto show in Indonesia. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

If you’ve done any driving in the last decade, you’ve no doubt noticed cars have gotten bigger. A less-appreciated aspect of this trend is that they have also gotten heavier. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average weight of a new vehicle sold in the U.S in 2022 was 4,329 pounds — more than 1,000 pounds higher than the average in 1980. Having so many two-tonne vehicles barrelling down streets presents obvious problems in terms of road safety, but it’s also an environmental concern, because each vehicle requires that much more raw material. 

Electric-vehicle batteries can add 1,000 to 1,500 pounds to a typical vehicle, which has led to a flurry of articles about their weight (like one from Fortune: “Some electric cars are so heavy they risk crushing smaller vehicles in collisions“). Without downplaying the perpetual risk to pedestrians, it’s worth a reality check: vehicles were expanding long before EVs hit the road. This is partly due to enhanced safety regulations for the vehicles themselves, but the fact that drivers have a growing predilection for trucks and SUVs. Electrified or not, today’s brawny vehicles are a dangerous proposition. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. found that adding 1,000 pounds to a vehicle increases the chance of fatalities in an accident by 47 per cent.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

The kids are not alright: How young people are dealing with increasing climate anxiety

Two children sitting on a wire fence watching a helicopter, with smokey from wildfire and mountain range in the background.
Kelowna wildfire images taken on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

As catastrophic weather events rapidly become the norm, young people are increasingly worried about their futures. But experts say resources to support their mental health are unlikely to keep up with demand.

With a haze of wildfire smoke hanging in the background, 16-year-old Victoria resident Hannah Fessler recently expressed concern that people her age are being left to deal with problems created by previous generations. 

She admitted her feelings about the wildfires in B.C., the Northwest Territories and around the world are a jumble. 

“I’m scared, obviously, but I’m also kind of relieved that I’m not a victim. But I’m kind of ashamed that I just focus on myself,” Fessler said.

There have been more than 5,800 fires in Canada so far this year, burning more than 15.3 million hectares, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, making it Canada’s worst fire season ever. In addition to prompting thousands of evacuations, smoke from this season’s fires has led to air quality warnings across the country.

Fear about the future is something Adriana Silva, 18, also experiences amid climate change — a fact that adults around her do not always acknowledge, she says.

“Some relatives don’t really believe in climate change, saying that it’s not real, it’s a hoax and everything,” Silva said. “I, for one, believe in it. It’s quite real. We’re seeing it first-hand every day.”

Accounts like these augment studies that illustrate how climate change is impacting young people’s mental health. According to a 2021 study published in The Lancet, 84 per cent of 10,000 respondents aged 16 to 25 were at least moderately worried about climate change. More than 45 per cent said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life.

There is a range of feelings associated with climate change that does not necessarily equate to climate anxiety, says Dr. Lindsay McCunn, chair of the environmental psychology section of the Canadian Psychological Association and a psychology professor at Vancouver Island University.

“There’s this term called ‘ecological worrying’ that is a little bit different than climate anxiety. And I think a lot of people, whether they realize it or not, probably have some ecological worrying going on in their psychology,” McCunn said.

Ecological worrying is when people are aware of climate change and may be concerned about it, but are able to respond in productive ways, like preparing for an emergency or taking part in climate action events. 

Climate anxiety, on the other hand, is when this worry turns into potentially paralyzing despair.

The consensus within the Canadian Psychological Association is that the prevalence of climate anxiety will worsen in the next few years, and that there aren’t enough mental health professionals available. 

Kids Help Phone, a phone and text service meant to help young people talk through their mental health concerns and provide them with resources, saw a major uptick in demand during COVID-19 restrictions. But call volumes have not dropped since, said Diana Martin, the organization’s senior director of counselling.

“We get up to 800 or 900 phone calls in a day, on a busy day, which is probably about double what we used to get before the pandemic,” Martin said.

It’s tough to gauge whether call volumes increase in times of natural disasters, she said, but Martin speculates that a 30 per cent spike in contacts to Kids Help Phone in June could have been driven by climate change-induced incidents.

When young people call or text Kids Help Phone, they typically start by expressing their feelings, without pointing to a specific cause, Martin said. Through conversations, counsellors or trained volunteers will then determine their needs and direct them to the appropriate resources.

The ability to text or live chat someone through their website is particularly popular.

“For a lot of young people, it’s either comfort using written modalities, or sometimes it’s just about privacy,” Martin said. “[With] a phone call, sometimes young people are worried that they’ll be overheard. So reaching either by text or by live chat feels more private.”

Finding people to talk to about their ecological worries is one solution teens like Fessler and Silva have sought out. Spending time in nature is another.

The solution to “dealing with my anxiety about nature, for me, is spending more time in nature,” said Linh Nguyen, 19, who moved to Canada with her family five years ago. “It’s just sad that the space that you’re spending time in could be in danger.” 

For McCunn, there is a pressing need to conduct more research about climate anxiety — not just among young people, but in all demographics.

“The environment is everywhere, right? It’s part of everyone’s life, no matter who you are, no matter where you work, no matter what your circumstances are,” McCunn said.

“We’ve all probably found ourselves attached to the places in which we live and work and play. To have that threatened in a way that could be very devastating, like a wildfire, offers a particular type of stress.”

Brishti Basu

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