Recommendations for More Sustainable Food Production and Consumption in Tromsø
A hundred years from now, what kind of food will the people of Tromsø be eating? Will it be locally grown root vegetables? Industrially produced foods? How can traditional local knowledge be applied in the twenty-first century, which we hope will be more sustainable than the past century? These are questions we posed to food researchers and growers at HOLT, a bio-research institute located on the west side of Tromsøya Island, across the hill and, normally, a half-hour walk from Tromsø’s city centre (it took us an hour in a snowstorm). Its sprawling fields face west: the best place to grow vegetables in extreme climate conditions. We are in the Arctic.
The HOLT team answer to our questions was short and simple. They expect local food cultivation to increase gradually, persistently, and substantially. They say this sincerely and with confidence. And they should know. Like all good Arctic explorers, they look beyond the horizon of present knowledge. HOLT is the first station in the exploration of sustainable local food production and consumption in Tromsø.
During our visit to HOLT we reflected on the extravagant past century of consumerist culture, which has put the emphasis on products and production. The product culture has unquestionably changed how we think about food and the kind of food we eat. At the same time, increased food production and its circulation around the world has exposed such imbalances as the fact that fully half of food produced in the world is wasted. Meanwhile, Portugal, a country with good agricultural and environmental conditions, imports 80 percent of its food. In the Arctic, with its extreme climate, importing food make sense. No one today wants to eat only fish, potatoes, and carrots. But does it make sense to send Norwegian fish to China, where it is processed and packaged and then sent back to Europe to be sold? This may be profitable at the moment, but is it sustainable in the long run? What happens if we think on a smaller scale, on a local scale, and think long-term?
Today cities around the world are aspiring to be more resilient and self-reliant. Simply put, one could say that after exploring globalization, it’s now time for civilization to focus on what is local and sustainable. But unfortunately, things are not that simple. Today, sustainability means vastly different things in different places around the world. Tromsø is a good geo-political example of what is at stake. First, because of the harsh living conditions in the Arctic region, the city has to depend on the outside world. Second, again because it is located in the Arctic and the melting North, it finds itself in the midst of an accelerated exploitation of natural resources. Fundamentally, the politicians see climate change as an opportunity to explore and extract natural resources and so extend their political influence. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the state governments and indigenous people of the Arctic, is headquartered in Tromsø. While the city sees a role for itself in governing the region, the crucial question about participation lies with the residents. How can people who live here participate more actively in governing their city?
The World Cafe
Tromsø wants to be a more resilient city. Clearly, it cannot close the loop of local production and consumption. But the process of sustainability starts when one thinks about self-sustainability. Is this a contradiction, or an opportunity? How do residents balance the local with the global picture? Can we come up with any outside-the-box proposals that make sense for the people who live here? What is the path to a new identity? How can residents be empowered? These are some of the issues we discussed at the World Cafe at the Tromsø Town Hall on March 7. Three groups focused on three issues: land and water, self-construction, and food. The groups were Tromsø residents; UniGrowCity participants from Berlin, a village in Italy, Lisbon, London, and Stockholm; and students from the Design for the Living World class at HFBK in Hamburg and their guests. The recommendations we made to the Tromsø municipality would not have been possible without in-depth research and our own personal experiences during ten days in Tromsø, and the valuable insights of local practitioners and thinkers, such as the food researchers and growers at HOLT.
We visited HOLT during a winter storm. We were greeted by one of the researchers and his dog. He held a shovel in his hands and dug into the snow as he explained the difference between land covered by snow, and land covered by ice. The soil’s fertility survives beneath snow. It does not survive beneath ice, which kills it. In recent years, he said, as a result of climate change, the land has been covered by ice instead of snow, and this is not good. We followed him to a lavo, an indigenous Sami shelter, where we gathered around an open fire as he talked about HOLT’s mission and activities. The highlight of our visit was the greenhouse, which felt a bit like science fiction after our more down-to-earth talk. This large glass structure was a place where vegetables grow under special conditions – maximum light, minimum light, different temperatures, etc. Behind the greenhouse, a large field stretches to the sea. Potatoes and other root vegetables are planted here with help of many hands: the residents and schoolchildren of Tromsø. At HOLT, growing vegetables is an educational endeavour, where residents reconnect with the soil and take home and enjoy delicious varieties of potatoes, carrots, and beetroots. During the summer months, when there is an abundance of sunlight, the fields yield two harvests. Vegetables grow under stressed conditions here, but their quality is better than that of the imported foods produced far away by industrial agriculture. Quality matters more than quantity.
Food is abundant in Tromsø’s supermarkets, but it is expensive. To minimize our expenses we looked for other options. One alternative was to bring food with us from Hamburg, which we did. When we arrived, our luggage was stuffed with produce. Another alternative, however, was “dumpster diving” for food after the supermarkets closed. Every day a different dumpster-diving team had the task of foraging in the dumpsters behind the supermarkets on the city outskirts. The “catch” became our meal the next day. And there was plenty of food.
The chef of the kitchen at the Academy of Fine Arts was Mai Shirato. She organized the teams for dumpster diving and cooking. Each day, a different team was responsible for doing the urban foraging and cooking for the whole group. Meals were created as the cooks sorted through the newly gathered ingredients every morning. Lunch was served in two forms. The cooking team made the main part of our lunch. A big pot with the different ingredients all mixed together was set on the table. For her part, Mai used the same ingredients but prepared them in the Japanese way, where each component is tasted separately. In this simple way, tasting food started a process of food awareness on a personal level. On the last day of our stay, Mai showed us what she called the Food Map, which showed where the food we had eaten for ten days came from. It was mostly foraged food. Can the city too make use of this kind of food?
The Kitchen and the Dining Table
Åsa Sonjasdotter told me that the kitchen at the Academy had been integrated in the curriculum from the start, so the students could have a kitchen where they could cook. She said the founders of the school understood the importance of working together and informal gatherings. This reminded me of Marco Clausen saying that the success of the Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin is due precisely to the fact that it offers an informal gathering space where the cross-pollination of ideas and practices happens naturally. The kitchen and the large dining table at the Academy, where more and more people joined us during the project Tromsø: A City as a Garden, were fundamentally spaces of meeting and exchange and became an important element in community building. Here, we planned activities and discussed issues and learned from each other. From here new collaborations took off.
Food Mapping and the Tromsø Food Plan
To raise awareness of where food comes from and how much is consumed or wasted, and to understand the local food production, we recommend doing “food mapping” in Tromsø. This, in short, would be a way to make the food system clear. Because it would be available to the public, it would start a process of self-awareness and empowerment around food issues. The Food Map, we believe, is a necessary step towards a Tromsø Food Plan.
Community Involvement and Local Identity
The objective should be low-impact, low-input, and high-solidarity food production. The Food Map and the Food Plan, tailored to local needs and aspirations, would stimulate agro-ecological research as well as the innovative distribution and production of food, such as in community-supported agriculture (CSA). This can be achieved only with the active participation of local residents, farmers, and fishermen, as well as researchers at the University. It must be a cross-disciplinary effort. We recommend that an Arctic Agro-ecological Research Centre be founded at the University. Such a centre would incorporate local knowledge at the University level – keeping in mind that the University is an important part of Tromsø’s identity. The Centre would support food awareness at the community level, and boost residents’ cultural identity around food. HOLT provides an inspiring example of a local trans-disciplinary educational centre that works closely with residents.
The Distribution of Food
The quantity of left-over food in Tromsø is something we learned about first-hand as we foraged the dumpsters. A large amount of locally produced food goes to waste – cabbages, potatoes, berries, as well as other fruits and vegetables farmers cannot make use of. What about selling such produce directly to local shops? Direct sale bypasses the large distribution companies and so brings the costs down. We learned that there is already a shop that practices direct sale, on Kvaloya Island, across the bridge from Tromsø, and it is respected for its selection of local varieties. There are also fishermen who sell their fish on trucks. A food cooperative store could eventually result from cooperation between farmers. The HOLT team told us that they advise regional farmers how to distribute locally grown food, but while Finnish farmers take their advice, the Norwegian farmers don’t, no doubt because of the different market conditions.
Alternative Agriculture in 21st Century
During the project Tromsø: A City as a Garden, the Mack Building (the old local brewery) was being vacated in order to become part of the Academy of Fine Arts. According to city planners, all industry will eventually move out of the city. We recommend that industry – a symbol of the last century – stay on the island so residents don’t have to commute to work over large distances. Also, excess energy can be used for local food production. For instance, unneeded heat produced by the heating plant can be captured and used to heat greenhouses, and warm water can be used in algae cultivation. Additional local food cultivation in greenhouses is an important contribution to local food security.
Moving Towards No-Waste Systems
The main idea behind the project Tromsø: A City as a Garden is to think about Tromsø as a city that is consciously moving towards a no-waste system. We were inspired by the Sami garden, where nothing is wasted. Here, the gardener’s tasks rotate through a cycle: preparation, cultivation, consumption, and reuse. What is more: a garden is not only about growing food – it is place to live, share, gather with friends, and store materials. It is a place rich in resources, even when their use is not immediately visible. A city, too, can similarly be understood as a sustainable organism, created and cultivated by the people who live there. Residents actively and responsibly participate in local loop of production and consumption.
Reusing and Upcyling in Short-Feedback Logistical Systems
Remiks, the city’s recycling centre, is doing an important job by collecting, sorting and reusing waste on a city-wide level. We recommend the creation of short-feedback logistical systems, such as a recycling centre where construction materials could be reused for do-it-yourself construction. Another example would be a decentralized compost system that operates on the community level. A new culture of living starts growing when you do things together, when you get your hands dirty together. Talking is not enough. A compost box on the corner of your street and a school vegetable garden are “relational objects” – things that help create relationships, in this case, also between residents and a more sustainable urban life.