What can food companies learn about sustainability from Indigenous Peoples’ food systems?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/RyersonClarke
Image: Getty/RyersonClarke

Related tags Sustainability

Quite a lot, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Together with the Alliance of Bioversity International and The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the FAO has released a study identifying hundreds of diverse plant and animal species that Indigenous Peoples around the world depend on and care for to generate food sustainably and enhance biodiversity.

The publication maps eight diverse Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, providing insights and details into their unique elements of sustainability and resilience.

Nearly 500 million people in more than 90 countries self-identify as Indigenous Peoples. The study looks at eight Indigenous Peoples’ food systems in the Amazon, Sahel, Himalayas, Pacific Islands and Arctic, documenting their unique capacity to conserve biodiversity and foster resilient food security; calls for recognizing land rights, and traditional practices.

They generate hundreds of food items from the environment without depleting natural resources and achieve high levels of self-sufficiency, according to the report. In the Solomon Islands, for example the Melanesians people combine agroforestry, wild food gathering and fishing to generate 70% of their dietary needs. In Finland’s Arctic region, through fishing, hunting and herding, the Inari Sámi people generate 75% of the protein they consume in a diet characterised by high intakes of fatty fish, red meat (primarily reindeer), fat, blood and organ dishes, wild berries and boiled, unfiltered coffee, and low intakes of cultivated vegetables and fruit, bread, and fibre.

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems analysed in the publication include those belonging to the Baka people in Cameroon, the Inari Sámi people in Finland, the Khasi, Bhotia and Anwal peoples in India, the Melanesians people in the Solomon Islands, the Kel Tamasheq people in Mali, the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples in Colombia, and the Maya Ch’orti’ in Guatemala. These varied and unique systems combine different food generation techniques like hunting, gathering, fishing, pastoralism and shifting cultivation, the report revealed. Mobile practices, including nomadism, are vital to link food generation and production activities to natural cycles in a resilient way, it noted. Developed over millennia by Indigenous Peoples, such traditions enable habitats to recover and allow ecosystems to replenish themselves and provide fresh, nutritious and diverse foods.

'Valid and tested contributions' to make which shouldn’t be ignored

Indigenous Peoples have 'valid and tested contributions' to make to sustainability, the report observed, particularly in areas regarding energy use, territorial management, waste included as inputs in the system, fallow practices and ecological management associated with culture and tradition to enable replenishment of the natural resource base. The territorial management practices of Indigenous Peoples are ‘carefully attuned to the ecosystems in which they live’, the report observed. As such, they’ve been able to successfully preserve biodiversity and create sophisticated food systems that generate food for communities for generations.

“Scientists are starting to acknowledge this whilst policymakers have not yet been able to translate this growing awareness into effective policy measures that protect Indigenous Peoples’ practices,”​ the report noted, adding, “there is potential to draw lessons on sustainability from Indigenous Peoples that can be extrapolated to other contexts and communities”.

It went on to complain that a lack of respect of Indigenous Peoples’ intellectual property rights over their knowledge of plants has been one of the major constraints for Indigenous Peoples to share their knowledge about sustainability with non-indigenous scientists. “The international community needs to address this issue guaranteeing Indigenous Peoples’ rights,” ​it said. “Otherwise, important segments of knowledge and understanding of how nature and biodiversity works, accumulated over generations of observation of the natural cycles and interactions in the ecosystems, will be lost with the passing of the elders and the migration of youth to urban centres.”

“Being adaptive is the main resilient element of these food systems. Indigenous Peoples adapt their food generation and consumption to the seasonality and natural cycles observed in their surrounding ecosystems, not in the opposite way as most other societies do. Deep observation of the environment accumulated generation after generation and sharp understanding of the relationships between the elements in the ecosystem guarantee the protection of biodiversity,”​ said Anne Nuorgam, Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The publication identified the main internal and external drivers affecting Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and affecting their future prospects and continuity as managers of intact ecosystems and stewards of land containing 80 percent of the biodiversity that remains. “Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are game changers if acknowledged and protected, as recent studies have also shown that in several areas zero hunger has been achieved,”​ said Phrang Roy, Founding Chair of NESFAS, based in Shillong, India.

“We need more effective and creative interactions between indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge systems. This is the only way we will achieve the agri-food system transformation that the world needs,”​ added Máximo Torero, FAO Chief Economist.

Sophisticated food systems under threat

However, the report cautioned of increasing threats to these sophisticated food systems. It warned these systems are at high risk from climate change, major infrastructure projects, and the granting of concessions that allow mining, commercial agriculture and logging companies to operate on Indigenous Peoples´ territories.

“Despite surviving for centuries, Indigenous Peoples’ agri-food systems are likely to disappear in the next years due to a number of drivers threatening their future,”​ said Juan Lucas Restrepo, Director General of the Alliance of Bioversity-International and CIAT. Researchers must listen and learn from them to support efforts to maintain ancestral knowledge, he added.

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