Airships could rescue First Nations

By: Barry Prentice

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 22, 2013 A11

Your editorial (Everyone should have food security, Feb.1) makes an important connection between transportation and health. The urban food deserts are linked to higher rates of diabetes because some residents cannot afford the travel costs to reach a large grocery store. Food insecurity and high rates of diabetes are even worse in Northern Manitoba.

Transport costs to remote communities make grocery prices two-and-a-half to three times higher than food prices in Winnipeg’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.

It’s time to revisit the idea of using transport airships to deliver nutritious food products to Manitoba’s remote communities.

The connection between transportation costs and high rates of diabetes in the North was explored at the third Airships to the Arctic conference (A2A) in 2005. Diabetes is a very serious problem in remote communities. Dr. Heather Dean of the University of Manitoba spoke about her research with Type 2 diabetes in Cree children. Her studies show that the children of diabetic mothers are even more susceptible to the disease and related health issues.

In 2011, the federal government redirected the subsidy for northern food transportation from the operations of Canada Post, to administration by 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. A relative increase in the sales of the Nutrition North food products has been observed 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 four years. The Manitoba NDP government announced a program called Affordable Food in Northern Manitoba (AFFIRM), but few details are available on the size of this subsidy. Meanwhile, the Manitoba Liberal Party has pledged $25 million in its first year to subsidize food in the North.

As much as food-transportation subsidies may be appreciated and help relieve northern food insecurity, they are hardly a sustainable solution. These subsidies would barely offset food-price inflation arising from the depreciated Canadian dollar, not to mention keeping up with a rapidly growing population.

The problem of high transportation costs can only be solved with technology advance. Since the 2005 A2A conference, the airship industry has continued to make advances. 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 U.S. 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 here in Manitoba.

A graduate research thesis 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 University of Manitoba was given great co-operation by the North West Company that provided the student with access to shipping costs and volumes. The transport costs were collected for groups of stores in northeastern Manitoba, northwestern Ontario and Kivalliq Region, Nunavut. Among the surprising observations: the ice roads are only responsible for 25 per cent of the grocery shipments; small airplanes are used to bring in the other 75 per cent.

At Kivalliq, a sealift-airship combination could lower average total costs by 30 per cent. In Ontario and Manitoba, assuming ice roads remain passable, airships could lower food transportation costs by 25 to 60 per cent.

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 and economic disparities in the remote communities.

Nutritious food choices are complicated. But when you have a low income and food prices are really high, sugar and fat are good value for the dollar. Nutritious food products are more expensive, as is everything in the remote communities because of transportation costs.

In an election year, it is appropriate to ask policy questions of the candidates. If our politicians have good reasons not to support an airship transportation program, then they should be clear on these reasons. First Nations, who live with overcrowding, boil-water advisories, high food prices and rampant diabetes, should ask why they must live with food insecurity and associated problems, when a transportation solution is at hand.

Barry Prentice is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba.