Learning from Indigenous Peoples about Food System Sustainability and Reciprocity


by Gennifer Meldrum | December 13, 2021

“Our broken down agriculture systems must make a quick U-turn and be more deeply embedded and connected with nature” This was a key message drawn by Phrang Roy, Coordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, from the Indigenous Peoples’ sessions at the 2nd International Agrobiodiversity Congress. The Congress, held November 15 to 18, focused on the role of agrobiodiversity—the wealth of different plants, animals and microbes—in shaping resilient, sustainable and nutritious food systems and included three sessions dedicated to Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. These sessions were co-organized by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, and the FAO Global Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems.


Indigenous Peoples and global food system transformation

The Agrobiodiversity Congress followed the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), a process that convened tens of thousands of people worldwide to discuss transforming food systems to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In his statement on the Summit, UN Secretary General António Guterres highlighted the importance of building on good practices, specifically citing those of Indigenous Peoples, to secure the power of food systems to “realize our shared vision for a better world.” The 476 million Indigenous people in 90 countries are renowned for preserving most (approximately 80 percent) of the world’s biodiversity and are custodians of a substantial proportion of the world’s food genetic resources (FAO, 2021). The sessions at the Agrobiodiversity Congress explored food system practices that contribute to sustainability, while also considering how Indigenous Peoples can be supported and enabled in their critical roles as custodians of globally important agrobiodiversity.


Listening to and learning from Indigenous Peoples at the Agrobiodiversity Congress

The Agrobiodiversity Congress sessions revealed how Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are closely paired with the land, water, flora and fauna in their territories and how agrobiodiversity is maintained and created through practices that nourish their societies:

  • Considering the diversity of maize cultivated by Indigenous communities in Mexico, Quetzalcoatl Orozco, of Mexico’s Geography Institute of the National Autonomous University, described how cultivars derive from ethnic and cultural diversity, with culinary preferences, metaphysical beliefs and seed systems creating and shaping maize diversity. Maize is grown in milpa systems by communities across Mesoamerica, which Francisco Rosado May, from Quintana Roo Intercultural University, explained are just one component in the Yucatec Maya food system. Beekeeping, homegardens, forest use and management, elevated beds (canché), poultry, and pig raising are other distinct subsystems that households maintain, each including a multitude of species that complement each other ecologically and socially.
  • Thingnganing Longvah described how the Naga in North East India own their land, which they manage primarily through shifting cultivation (jhum) and community forests. Vital micronutrients are supplied in their diets by a wide range of wild foods, including many forest fruits, leafy vegetables, mushrooms “as tall as children,” and insects such as carpenter worms and giant hornets. Longvah explained how the vast agrobiodiversity translates into nutritional outcomes: Underweight, hypertension, diabetes, and vitamin-A deficiency were found to be remarkably lower in Chakhesang Naga communities compared to other areas of India. Another study shared by Gratia Dkha of the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society came to a similar conclusion, revealing that Indigenous communities, each with about 200 plants in their food systems, experienced lower levels of food insecurity compared to other populations across South Asia.
  • Roba Bulga Jilo from the Fletcher School at Tufts University described how camel milk sustains livelihoods in his pastoralist Karrayyu community in Ethiopia. Camel milk is highly nutritious and not as perishable as milk from other animals. Jilo explained “everything we do depends on these animals,” which enable his community to resist the challenges of shrinking land access and climate change. Camels (and the pastoralists who nurture them) also support neighbouring farmers, as the animals graze on fallow fields, fertilizing the soil with their manure and clearing the weeds.

The presentations revealed the great diversity of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. While each is unique, a common feature is that local plants, animals, fungi, elements and places are honoured and nurtured through practices devised and refined over ages to maintain balance and continuity over the long term. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are based on experience accumulated over thousands of years. Francisco Rosado May explained that Yucatec Mayan cultivation systems are informed by at least 10,000 years of knowledge. Compared to 70 years of Green Revolution industrial agriculture and 40 years of agroecology, he emphasized how Indigenous Peoples’ food systems draw on a much deeper wisdom. To the peril of global sustainability, this knowledge has been devalued in dominant food systems and is at risk of being lost in many parts of the world, as a result of deliberate and more passive processes. Harriet Kuhnlein, of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill University, described several threats, including dispossession of land and resources, overharvesting, climate change, environmental contamination, assimilative education, and urbanisation.


Leveraging agrobiodiversity in sustainable development: A commitment to action

The role of Indigenous Peoples in saving, growing and integrating agrobiodiversity in nutritious diets are invoked throughout the Rome Manifesto, which documents the commitments emerging from the Agrobiodiversity Congress to realize the full benefits agrobiodiversity can offer in realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Manifesto recognizes the importance of “protecting the Indigenous Peoples and cultures that create and sustain diversity through biocultural interactions.” The commitments include actions to diversify diets and production systems and conserve agrobiodiversity in food systems for all everywhere, including:

  • Increasing consumer awareness and building nutrient content knowledge of the great diversity of foods in traditional and Indigenous food systems;
  • Developing nutrition strategies inclusive of food cultures, languages, rituals and traditional knowledge;
  • Creating incentives for biodiverse markets and business development of diverse food products; and
  • Diversifying production systems with practices developed through participatory methods that integrate scientific, traditional, and Indigenous knowledge.

Ensuring all actions are taken with respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples to self determination and with Free and Prior Informed Consent is noted throughout the Manifesto.


Human rights and anti-racism as foundations for sustainability

Realizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is a critical action Alejando Argumedo, with Asociación ANDES, noted is needed to ensure their knowledge, practices, and strategies for “how to live in harmony with mother earth” can guide our journey toward sustainable food systems. Argumedo highlighted the need for including Indigenous people in steering the food systems agenda, going beyond collaboration at the local level, to raise them into leadership positions in research and development organisations and universities. A similar message was shared by Tania Eulalia Martinez-Cruz of the University of Greenwich and the Global Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems, who described how “Indigenous Peoples, their food systems, knowledge and practices, have been and continue to be marginalized in science and policy while they are “game changers” for the climate crisis and food security.” She pointed to the Coalition of Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems formed as an outcome of the UNFSS as one step toward “ensuring better understanding, respect, recognition, inclusion and protection of Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems” going forward.


Shifting food system values and leaning into our responsibility to find sustainability

Current food systems are major contributors to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and food waste. Indigenous Peoples offer valuable lessons on how to “get more connected with nature” for a more sustainable future, especially recognizing humans as part of nature, respecting and valuing all beings, and caring for the land as it cares for us. Phrang Roy urged replacing the driving principles in current food systems of “domination, monocropping and profit” with the Indigenous values of “caring, solidarity and dignity for all” to build resilience and respect for agrobiodiversity and planetary boundaries. It is our responsibility to future generations to take these lessons to heart to find a better balance in feeding the world while enabling all beings on this earth—human and more than human—to flourish.

Gennifer Meldrum is a consultant with the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and an ecologist (MSc) with nearly a decade of experience researching and advocating for the role of traditional crops and knowledge in sustainable food systems. She is Métis with mixed Indigenous and white settler ancestry and is currently based on the unceded territories of the Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm), Squamish (Skwxwu7mesh) and Tsleil Waututh (səlilwətaɬ) First Nations, also known as Vancouver, Canada, where she is actively reflecting on how she benefits and contributes to the colonisation and ongoing occupation of these unceded lands, while striving to advance reconciliation.

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Photos: Top: A bee gathers pollen from a maize flower in a milpa in Guatemala. Inset: A meal with locally produced and harvested rice and greens prepared by a Khasi community in northeast India. Credit: G. Meldrum,Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT


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