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An influential Anchorage-based business policy group, Commonwealth North, has taken on a study of food supply and security in the state and how to increase local agricultural development.

The group has formed a special task force of its members to develop a report and recommendations for state action.

Commonwealth North is led by leaders of Anchorage’s business community and its reports on issues like state fiscal and budget policy, energy, health care and education over several years have been closely read by legislators.The interest being shown by the group is also an important signal to senior officials in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s new administration that agriculture is important to Alaskans in urban centers, and not just the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.Some state officials have questioned the economic viability of agriculture and whether state assistance is needed for farmers.“Food security is a basic necessity for all Alaskans … it includes cost, nutrient value, sustainability and supply,” said Terry Smith, Commonweath North’s president, at the April 17 inaugural meeting of the task force.Smith read a list of the charges given the task force by Commonwealth North’s board:“Alaskans import 95 percent of the $2 billion worth of food they purchase. Imported food is shipped through a long, expensive and fragile supply chains,” Smith said, reading from the board directives.“The supply chain is at more risk to fuel price spikes, natural disasters and severe weather.”If new capacity can be built it would help mitigate supply disruptions and create an economic engine for new jobs, agricultural infrastructure, support and value-added industries.At most, current food supplies at grocery stores are estimated at eight days of availability,” the directives noted.Tom Harris, CEO of Kniknatnu, Inc., the Alaska Native village corporation for Knik, said there should be more recognition given of the potential for wild fish and game as an emergency food source.Communities today are becoming more dependent on store-bought food that is shipped in and less dependent on locally-available fish and game.“There used to be 650 moose a year taken in Yakutat. Now it is down to 25 a year,” Harris told the task force.Beef costs $27 a pound in Yakutat, which means a typical large moose can have a value of $10,000 in offsetting cash purchases, Harris said.

Among other things, the study will consider how basic infrastructure, like freezer capacity, can help local growers provide year-around supply that is less vulnerable to disruption, and the problems rural food buyers contend with, which include limited capacity, high transportation costs and spoilage.Also, local agriculture bolsters the economy. “An economically sustainable agricultural industry keeps more Alaska dollars in the state economy and builds capacity. Additional capacity helps drive the scale required to build sustainable businesses,” the board’s directives said.

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