Northern Food Supply Problems: Short-comings of Conventional Air Transport
Airships will offer a competitive advantage
by Glenn J. Scott, March 13th, 2012
Northern Canadian communities have long suffered from an unreliable food supply, low-quality perishable food items and extraordinarily high costs. As recently as 2011, it was reported that residents of the High Arctic community of Arctic Bay, Nunavut were paying as much as $38 for cranberry cocktail, $29 for Cheez Whiz and $77 for a bag of breaded chicken. Such high costs, coupled with the poor nutritional quality of the foods that were mentioned has resulted in a generally poor standard of living in these communities. Even high-nutrition foods such as fresh produce were rated by one-half to two-thirds of the residents as being of ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ quality.
Four decades ago, the Canadian federal government began the Food Mail program to alleviate the high prices that northern residents were paying for food. This program subsidized food costs by paying for its transport to 140 isolated northern communities (90,000 people) in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory, Labrador and the northern reaches of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. By 2010, the $60 million dollar food mail subsidy applied to nearly 14 million kg of perishable products that were shipped by Canada Post to these communities. The ‘Food Mail’ program was canceled in 2011 and was replaced by the ‘Nutrition North Canada’ program which utilizes sea-lifts and ice-roads to deliver non-perishable food items and airlifts for fresh produce. It was hoped that the cost of nutritional food for northern residents would be significantly decreased through competition among private air carriers for food delivery contracts with local food retailers.
However, because many of the most isolated northern communities are serviced by only one air carrier, small retailers have been unable to realize significant savings on the cost of nutritional foods. Because other foods are no longer subsidized by the government, their prices have increased dramatically. Regardless of whether the money spent on food comes directly from the pockets of northern residents or the Canadian government, a large amount of money must still be spent supplying northern communities with food.
Airships have the potential to improve the market share of air transport in existing produce markets and expanding the range of products and markets for which air transport is used to ship produce. While slower than conventional air transport, airships would be three to five times faster than marine transport with freight rates somewhere between air cargo and intermodal ocean container shipment. Airships are ideally suited for bulky low value cargo deliveries of fresh produce to remote communities because they are limited only by the weight of fuel and cargo and do not require expensive fixed infrastructure to operate. Because they can fly over obstacles and don’t require an airport, fewer intermodal transfers would be necessary thus resulting in further potential savings.
The introduction of airships into the northern resupply network would offer the kind of competition that would reduce freight costs and could help Nutrition North Canada realize its promises of low-cost, high-quality food for people in Canada’s remote northern reaches.