Food from Fire
One-line solution summary:
Reduce fire hazard and grow food year round in the Arctic with biomass heated greenhouses
Pitch your solution.
Villages in rural Alaska are considered food deserts and lack a sustainable supply of diverse healthy food. Most food is imported via air, leaving Alaska one emergency away from being food insecure. Additionally, unprecedented warming is resulting in an increasing number of forest fires, treacherously close to infrastructure and communities. To further compound this issue, spruce beetle kill ravaged the forest, leaving an over abundance of fire fuel in its wake. A few communities are working to reduce fire potential and address food security by planning for and investing in biomass heated greenhouses. Fire breaks are cleared around communities and the removed vegetation is often classified as non-sellable timber. This biomass can be used in boilers to provide heat during the winter to schools and/or greenhouses. I propose to develop a sustainable business model for this greenhouse to increase the number in operation throughout Alaska, especially in rural villages.
What specific problem are you solving?
The most critical issue for food security in Alaska is supply - about 95 percent of food is imported. Rural Indigenous food systems are becoming increasingly dependent on store-bought foods due to lack of locally grown options and significant impacts to subsistence harvests from climate change, high equipment prices, and loss of traditional knowledge. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and fires are expected to increase due to climate change. The one major airport in Alaska lies along the Ring of Fire in Anchorage, where a major earthquake resulted in infrastructure damage in 2018. Furthermore, Alaska experiences severe summer air quality issues due to extreme forest fires and an increasing number of fires are occurring above the Arctic Circle. In 2019, over 600 fires burned over 2.5 million acres in Alaska.
There are just over 700,000 people in Alaska, most of which live in the two major urban areas. Approximately 14 percent are Alaska Native from the 229 tribes in Alaska. Most tribes have their own village, government and Alaska Native corporation with significant land holdings (44 million acres total). These tribes are uniquely situated to develop biomass heated greenhouses and expand their operations to address food security concerns for urban Alaska.
What is your solution?
My solution provides a prototype biomass heated greenhouse with a business model unique to Alaskan villages. The business model reflects Indigenous economies, education and reciprocity values. One of the main project components is partnership between tribes and Alaska Native corporations to promote tribal and shareholder development for building, operating and maintaining the greenhouses. Cultural and shareholder development programs as well as a sample school curriculum for students to engage in greenhouse operations will be included. A variety of part-time positions will be created for tribal members including summer positions for youth.
The prototype will include a simple design with specifications based on existing units in operation. Basic cost estimates will reflect available construction materials and logistics. A database of funding and technical resources will be compiled. The more variable project component is the biomass which has a wide range of costs associated with accessibility, equipment and land cover or use. A phased vegetation clearing plan has to be developed for each village. This project will focus on biomass to reduce fire potential and include a solar option, if possible. Additionally, workforce for maintenance and operations are areas that can be highly variable and this project provides guidance for workforce development.
Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit?
The project I am developing is specifically geared towards creating sustainability for future generations of tribes. This project provides clean food and an opportunity for young people to learn new skills while maintaining their cultural traditions. With the help of tribes and Native Corporations, I can expand this project to provide more services and reach more tribal members and/or shareholders.
I am researching renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and tribal development grants through the Department of Energy and United States Department of Agriculture. Renewable energy and agriculture provide some relief for food security and high energy costs. They also provide environmentally-friendly business opportunities. Local business and job opportunities are essential to tribal development, self reliance and sustainability. Local economies provide opportunities for youth to gain on the job training in their village. Staying in the village allows youth to maintain subsistence traditions/food supplies. This project will help youth and Elders develop cultural and shareholder development programs including education, training and career counseling.
I plan to use my engineering background and natural resources education to assist tribes with investigating energy solutions and resource development opportunities. I am very active around campus, participating in several working groups related to co-production of knowledge and Indigenous Food Sovereignty and Security. I serve as a cultural advisor to incorporate Indigenous values, relationships and ways of knowing into research methodologies. I am working to demonstrate real community-driven research through engagement and inclusion.
In addition to having many coffee conversations, I attend a wide variety of conferences, gatherings and summits focused on uplifting Indigenous people and their voices. I work with many Elders and community leaders who advise me about hunting and fishing rights, environmental laws, tribal sovereignty and health justice issues. I maintain close relationships with many of the Native corporations throughout Alaska, who represent rural economies. I see myself as sort of a bridge, bringing the corporate, tribal and research worlds together to address real community issues. By building capacity and fostering partnerships, communities focus on their strengths to overcome issues.
The things I learn about I discuss with my Elders and community leaders. Through dialogue we each gain perspective and use that to progress our work. For example, I learned about renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and funding, and shared that knowledge with Elders, hunters, fishermen/women, tribal leaders and corporate CEOs. We are exploring how to pool our resources, including land, man hours and technical capacity to further community development projects such as biomass heated greenhouses. When tribes, corporations, researchers, agencies and institutions come together to work towards a communal goal, systems begin to change, equity becomes more plausible. This type of unification to work towards a vision, to live in balance with nature while pushing systemic change, is how we adapt and survive.
Food security is an issue likely to become more problematic with climate change. Many villages depend on subsistence which is getting difficult to rely on, often requiring government assistance to make up the difference. There are few roads and food is flown in at a high cost, mostly from Anchorage. The recent major earthquake in Anchorage threatened infrastructure and rural Alaska's food supply. The high cost of energy and the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels will increase. Bulk fuel is shipped to the villages for heating and transportation. High fuel costs are offset by government assistance. Pressure from an influx of sportsmen and climate change are taking subsistence hunters longer distances, requiring more fuel. This project provides an alternative adaptation to address the complexity and magnitude of these issues. Biomass or other renewable energy can increase the heating, power and food production capacity of rural villages. Expanding operations where feasible to meet demands of urban food production requirements can create sustainable local economies for these villages. Most importantly, these villages are at the mercy of government assistance and this project increases tribal sovereignty and self-reliance.
Which dimension of the Fellowship does your solution most closely address?Provide healthy and sovereign food, sustainable energy, and safe water
Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Fellowship and your selected dimension.
This solution is holistic, focusing on the wellness, viability and sustainability of rural Alaskan villages. As tribal members, landowners and corporate shareholders, we have unique opportunities to manage our own natural resources. We can develop projects that sustain the communities, socially, economically and environmentally. This project focuses on building community capacity to address food security and reduce fire potential. Traditional knowledge around the environment and local foods will be enhanced by agricultural adaptations using renewable energy technology. Increased jobs, capital, skills, culture, education, food, sustainable energy, health, wellness and recovery are all components of this solution to developing healthy communities.
In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?Fairbanks, AK, USA
What is your solution’s stage of development?Concept: An idea being explored for its feasibility to build a product, service, or business model based on that idea
Who is the primary delegate for your solution?
Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your primary delegate.
Nenana Native Association
Is your primary delegate a member of the community in which your project is based?
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?A new business model or process
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Select the key characteristics of your target population.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?
What type of organization is your solution team?Not registered as any organization
How many people work on your solution team?
It is just myself at the moment but I network with many other Indigenous scientists, students, leaders, engineers and corporate directors. If I had funding, I would hire additional staff.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
This solution is phased. As each stage of development occurs, there is additional funding. This project will use in-kind donations of lands, professional services and grant writing. Funds will initially be grant based to start up operation. Once in operation, direct sales of products and services will bring in income.
Explain how you are qualified for this prize. How will your team use The Experian Prize to advance your solution?We would be able to expand the number of operational greenhouses and trained personnel
- Eva Burk Graduate Research Assistant, Food from Fire