Blogs, Systems Thinking

Cultivating Diversity: How Indigenous foodways can inspire food systems transformation

The roots of agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways represent a continuous source of knowledge that can inform a repaired relationship between people and nature.

To advocate for Indigenous-led food systems transformation, we present four inspirational case studies from Canada, Bolivia, Ecuador, India, Mexico and Peru, calling upon global leaders to strengthen support for Indigenous rights, redress historical injustices, and restore access to land:

A Holistic Approach to Health and Nutrition

The Shkagamik-Kwe Health Care Center, in Canada, showcases the importance of dietary diversity and localized solutions to improve nutrition and health. On the traditional territory of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, community-led and culturally-appropriate healthcare services are provided to the community in many forms. The service offers traditional healing programs, primary healthcare, and social support services, as well as a wild food bank fostering a connection to the land and traditional sources of food and medicines. Meanwhile, cooking classes and youth hunt camps maintain traditional knowledge around subsistence, nutrition, and food acquisition. The center’s holistic programming is tackling the systemic health inequities Indigenous Canadians face by realigning physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. This approach improves connections to native foods and the land as cornerstones to improving the health of Indigenous families, communities, and nations.

Cultivating Biodiversity for an Agricultural Resilience

Indigenous territories are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity, while these communities are custodians of a vast majority of global genetic diversity–particularly through breeding wild crop relatives. At the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty, traditional food production systems, such as the milpa for the Yucatec Maya, are regarded as key to maintaining local biodiversity. A 3000-year-old cultivation system, the Mayan milpa is a traditional agroforestry system using polyculture, which can contain between 300 and 500 plant and animal species since it prioritizes variety over yield for ecosystem harmony. Knowledge-sharing (known as the iknal system) and seed exchange are also critical strategies for Yucatec Mayan farmers to problem-solve and improve their resilience to environmental stressors, such as pests. Generations of accumulated knowledge have fostered this local agrobiodiversity, which not only provides nutrition and subsistence to local communities but also a vital socio-ecological fabric to withstand the pressures of a climate-changing world.

Integrating Indigenous Wisdom into Climate Adaptation Efforts 

As weather patterns become more unpredictable, maintaining a steady supply of food is a priority for climate adaptation. In the highlands of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, the Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems (formally called the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP)) of the Andes is bringing together Western and Indigenous science to reduce the vulnerability of farmers to climate change. The Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems projects have progressed climate planning by integrating local knowledge (including natural indicators related to weather patterns, flora, and fauna) with scientific knowledge (such as data from weather stations). This dual approach helps farmers make agricultural decisions based on improved forecasting tools to predict short, medium, and long-term weather conditions. The Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems is premised on valuing farmers’ generational and locally-situated wisdom around adapting to the environment, creating Farmer Research Networks in an effort to build a more participatory approach to risk management between researchers, NGOs, rural organizations, and farmers. Promoting the integration of local and global knowledge is vital to helping local communities remain dynamic to environmental change, and these kinds of collaborative efforts also showcase the immense value of meaningful intercultural relations for a sustainable future.

Community-Centered Approaches for Local Empowerment

Co-operation, knowledge-sharing, and collective decision-making are characteristics of Indigenous food systems that can foster improved social and economic outcomes–a necessity for food systems transformation. The North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) perfectly captures the value of community-led approaches to food systems health and sustainability. This initiative, based in India’s Meghalaya state, runs a number of activities, including biodiversity walks, a Tastes and Flavours Network serving delicious dishes fusing cultural heritage with local ingredients, and farmer’s markets. These activities, shaped predominantly by local community members, intend to reconnect people to local food by supporting traditional agroecological practices and celebrating Indigenous heritage. With its emphasis on local empowerment, NESFAS has strengthened Indigenous food systems, and local economies, and fostered greater overall well-being in the continuity of Indigenous knowledge and ways of life.

As we stand on the threshold of significant global events such as the United Nations General Assembly and COP28, Patty Fong, Program Director for Climate and Health & Well-being at the Global Alliance, urges governments, the research community, philanthropy, investors and the private sector to embrace a paradigm that not only acknowledges but also draws insights from a diverse array of evidence, knowledge systems, and ways of understanding: “It’s time for a new, transformative agenda that recognizes and learns from diverse evidence, knowledge systems, and ways of knowing, one that upholds and values the interconnectedness between climate change, our food systems, health, and ecosystems long recognized by Indigenous Peoples and farmers around the world”.

When facing the path to food systems transformation, we must look to Indigenous communities who are at the frontlines of food, climate and biodiversity crises, yet continue to adapt and find innovative solutions that center human and planetary health. Lauren Baker, Deputy Director of the Global Alliance, underscores the significance of Indigenous-led food systems transformation: “These inspirational stories of community empowerment and resilience seek to mobilize local, national and international actors to respect, listen to, and collaborate with Indigenous voices in global fora. Greater representation and inclusion of diverse global communities are pivotal to creating a food system that nourishes equity, health, livelihoods, and the planet”.