Airships, A Permanent Solution to High Northern Food Costs?

April 25, 2016 - Areas of inner-cities where most large grocery stores have closed are being called urban food-deserts. A transportation connection has been drawn between the food insecurity of urban food-deserts and the health of citizens. The inner-cities have higher rates of diabetes because some residents cannot afford the travel costs to reach a large grocery store outside the urban core. Consequently, they shop where they can walk, at corner stores, where nutrition is not the objective and “junk food” is prominent.

High transportation costs and high rates of diabetes are even worse in remote communities in Northern Manitoba and Ontario. Transport costs to remote communities make grocery prices two and a half to three times higher than food prices in Canada’s inner city food-deserts. The only way to combat this dire situation is to foster the development of a transportation policy that can permanently lower food prices and improve food security. This article revisits the idea of using transport airships to deliver nutritious food products to Canada’s remote communities. 

In 2011, the Federal Government redirected the subsidy for northern food transportation from the operations of Canada Post, to the administration of the food distributors. They also narrowed the focus of the allowable products to be classified as nutritious. The Nutrition North subsidy was fixed at $60 million annually. Despite the grumbling about the level of the subsidy, anecdotally, the Nutrition North program has influenced consumption as observed by the North West Company.  They have seen a relative increase in the sales of the Nutrition North food products since the program changed.

Complaints about high food prices in the North have been heard. The Federal Liberal Party 2015 election platform contained a promise to increase the Nutrition North subsidy by $40 million over 4 years. In the run up to the election period, the Manitoba government announced a food transportation program called Affordable Food in Northern Manitoba, but few details are available on the size of this subsidy.  Meanwhile, the Manitoba Liberal Party has pledged $25 million in their first year to subsidize food in the North, if elected.

As much as food transportation subsidies may be appreciated, they are hardly a sustainable solution to Northern food insecurity. These subsidies would barely offset food price inflation arising from the depreciated Canadian dollar, not to mention keeping up with a fast growing population. Putting Band-Aids on broken bones is scarcely a cure.

The problem of high transportation costs can only be solved with technological advance. Since the 2005 Airships to the Arctic conference, the airship industry has continued to make strides. Airship programs are underway in the U.S. England, Russia, China, Brazil and Canada. The largest civilian airship in over 80 years is getting ready to fly in England in 2016. The certification requirements for a US airship are underway with the Federal Flight Administration (FAA). New airships are being built, including the BASI research airship that is undergoing cold weather testing in Manitoba (full disclosure – the author is a partner in the BASI project).

Research was completed in 2013 that compares the cost of current transportation systems to a 50 ton lift transport airship proposed for service in the North. The transport costs were collected for groups of stores in northeastern Manitoba, northwestern Ontario and Kivalliq, Nunavut. Among the surprising observations, ice roads are only responsible for 25% of the grocery shipments. Small airplanes are used to bring in the other 75%. At Kivalliq, a sealift-airship combination could lower average total transportation costs by 30%. In Ontario and Manitoba, assuming ice roads remain passable, airships could lower food transportation costs by 25 to 60%.

Rather than spending millions of dollars subsidizing food transportation costs to the North, with no end in sight, it is time to determine whether or not transport airships could bring a permanent solution to high food costs, bad health and economic disparities in remote communities. First Nations do not have to live forever with over-crowding, boiled water restrictions, high food prices and rampant diabetes. Taxpayers throughout the country do not have to absorb an annual bill for food subsidies when a transportation based solution exists.

Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba and Fellow in Transportation at Northern Policy Institute. First published in The Chronicle Journal, April 2016.

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