3 Food Security in Greenland

Gert Mulvad


Food security can be defined as “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets the dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (World Food Summit, 1996). Access to sufficient, safe, and culturally appropriate food is dependent on many interconnected factors, including education, food preferences, poverty, unemployment, household crowding, food costs, harvesting costs, and environmental conditions. Furthermore, in any community, it is important how food is produced, how it is prepared, and how it is consumed. These things are important to the individual and for the way people come together. That is why food is more than just getting the necessary nutrition; it is also essential for social life and the way families function. In turn, these factors need to be situated in the context of transformations in livelihoods and socio-economic conditions, colonial history, and land dispossession, which provide the underlying context for many of the challenges facing Arctic Indigenous food systems today.

Food sovereignty is a keyword when we are talking about our local food. There are four main components recognized in the context of Inuit food systems: availability (sufficient quantities available consistently), accessibility (enough resources to obtain food), quality (adequate nutritional and cultural value), and use (required knowledge of how to utilize food). Food insecurity has been identified to be at crisis levels.

Greenlandic Diet

In Greenland, the traditional Inuit diet is mainly based on marine mammals, birds, fish, and land-based animals. However, during the last century, a rapid dietary transition took place and Greenland shifted to a more modern economy. This transition has created competition between traditional food consumption and a more westernized diet. Today, the Greenlandic diet comprises a mixture of traditional food and imported foods. Due to inter alia weather conditions, most of Greenland’s fresh food source comes from wild animals or fish. Greenland has a production of lamb and a limited supply of vegetables, but most produced foods are imported from outside. In fact, imported foods provided 75-80% of the energy consumed in adult Greenlanders in 2013. A variety of imported foods are available at government-subsidized prices that are relatively uniform across the country, but still with variations between the larger towns and the smaller settlements (Hansen et al, 2017). In addition, imported, processed foods are expected to continue to take over an increasing part of the Greenlanders energy consumption.

Since food in Greenland is increasingly imported and coming fully or almost fully processed, the quality of nutrition has changed. Public health may be affected, as well as the social aspect of eating and preparing the meals. Nevertheless, the traditional diet remains very important to the Greenlandic population, both culturally and financially. The traditional Greenlandic diet is also important from a population health standpoint, as a means for people to get sufficient nutrients because, in many places, imported food is available mostly in poor quality.

When identifying adaptation strategies related to food security in Greenland, a central issue must be considered and that is the high level of long-range transported contaminants in the natural environment. Several emerging contaminants have been detected in Arctic biota, including mercury and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). High contents of organic contaminants are now found in people’s diet and the pollution has reached a level where it is of concern to health experts, as the levels are in excess of internationally accepted guidelines for safe intake (AMAP Assessment, 2015). The Greenlandic Board of Food and Environment has taken part in this human health research for the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Adlard et al. 2018).  Food security is simultaneously affected by climate change through impacts on food availability, accessibility, quality, and use. Climate change is affecting the availability of food resulting from shifts in biodiversity, as well as in the ranges of animal and plant species, which are important to communities. In a changing environment, incorrect preparation and storage of Greenlandic food may present a risk of food-borne diseases (Hansen et al, 2017). As a result, Greenland’s food supply strategy and the trend that traditional foods is being actively replaced by substandard imported food needs careful consideration.


As the Greenlandic Board of Food and Environment advises, ‘…don’t replace current food with worse food’; ‘Eat still traditional food, especially fish’; ‘Follow the season’; and ‘Prepare the food and eat together in the family’ (Bjerregaard & Mulvad, 2012). Health authorities highly recommend local fish products; terrestrial mammals; and new local food products, such as berries, seaweed, herbs, and vegetables, including angelica and mushrooms.

Following, current human exposure to hazardous contaminants can be reduced in two ways. First, there should be agreement on measures, such as international conventions, to eliminate or reduce production and use of the most dangerous chemicals. This is important; however, this will only be fully effective many years in the future. Thus, a second and concurrent strategy can be to implement intermediate intervention strategies locally, in order to protect the highest exposed populations. In the Arctic, the main source of anthropogenic contaminants of concern is from consumption of marine mammals. Consequently, the most efficient way to reduce human exposure is to replace consumption of highly contaminated marine mammals with fish and terrestrial mammals. Nevertheless, Elders still regard marine mammals as part of the traditional food and their cultural integrity. To continue the intake of any kind of traditional food after reproductive age is not a health problem.

Pregnant and nursing women can continuously eat varied Greenlandic food, but should be cautious with especially polar bear, teethed whales, seabirds, and aged seals, due to the contaminants they contain. These food subjects can be substituted with fish and terrestrial mammals. It is recommended that children and young people follow the same advice as pregnant women. In addition, it is recommended to all that they follow the ten dietary advice devised by the Greenlandic board of Food and Environment (see table 1) (Bjerregaard & Mulvad, 2012).


Ultimately, the vision is for all the people in Greenland to have sufficient knowledge about which food that is healthy and what is unhealthy, so everyone has the opportunity to choose a diet that prevent disease and promote a long life with good quality of life. (Bjerregaard & Mulvad, 2012) A changing diet and lifestyle to Western food will mean change in intake of energy, energizing nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and other biologically active substances. At the same time, it will diminish the importance of dietary context of cultural, business, and social conditions.

Table 1: Ten dietary advice by the Greenlandic board of Food and Environment

When considering food security, the goal is:

  • that Greenlandic food items is included in the public institutions’ food choices,
  • to increase the general knowledge about which foods are healthy,
  • to increase the general knowledge of food hygiene (proper storage and handling),
  • to increase the general knowledge of cooking methods that create variation and meets culinary and nutritional needs
  • reduction of pollution and promotion of food security,
  • to obtain local and international initiatives that reduce the discharge of pollutants to the environment,
  • to secure infrastructure that promotes the use of Greenlandic food in homes, in retail, in institutions and in social settings,
  • to inform and train on food hygiene, storage and preparation of both Greenlandic and imported food.
  • to give manual / training on how Greenlandic and imported food can be part of a diet that meets nutrient recommendations,
  • to secure local initiatives to increase food safety (Bjerregaard & Mulvad, 2012).

As per the Food Policy Statement 2004 from Government of Greenland (only in Danish and Greenlandic), it must be possible for all the people of Greenland to choose a healthy, balanced diet, consisting of safe food, food that is produced in Greenland by our own raw materials, and obtained in a sustainable way.


Additional Resources

Inuit Food (First Peoples of Canada)

Contaminants in the Arctic Food Chain (PBS)

Food and Water Security in the Arctic (UArctic)


AMAP. (2015) AMAP Assessment 2015: Human Health in the Arctic. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), Oslo, Norway.

Adlard B et al (2018) Future directions for monitoring and human health research for the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. Global Health Action, 11(1),

Bjerregaard P, Mulvad G. (2012). The best of two worlds: how the Greenland Board of Nutrition has handled conflicting evidence about diet and health.  Int J Circumpolar Health.

Hansen, A. M., Ingebrigtson, L., Edmunds-potvin, S., Mulvad, G., Weiler, H., Ford, J., Healey. (2018). Chapter 4. Health and well-being. In Adaptation Action for a Changing Arctic: BAFFIN BAY/DAVIS STRAIT REGIONAL REPORT

World Food Summit (1996). Rome Declaration on World Food Security.


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Northern and Indigenous Health and Healthcare Copyright © by Gert Mulvad is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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