Indigenous Peoples’ food systems hold the key to feeding humanity

A recent workshop hosted by IIED and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew explored how the way Indigenous Peoples grow and consume food holds answers to the world’s broken food system.

Krystyna Swiderska is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group, and Philippa Ryan is a research fellow in Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s economic botany team

A group of people gather around a pile of potatoes with mountains as a backdrop

Celebrating the spirit of the potato. In Peru, the Potato Park – a Quechua biocultural heritage territory – has donated a ton of potatoes to people in need in Cusco city during the COVID-19 crisis (Photo: Asociacion ANDES)

Modern food and farming systems are fundamentally unsustainable. They contribute around a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and are responsible for almost 60% of global biodiversity loss. They are degrading the natural resources – water, soils, genetic resources – needed to sustain agricultural production.

Modern food systems (PDF) are also highly inequitable, with power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few corporations.

Despite increased yields, food insecurity has been rising in recent years – more than 820 million people are hungry and 2 billion people are food insecure, underscoring the immense challenge of achieving the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of zero hunger by 2030.

The food systems of the world’s 476 million Indigenous Peoples are often branded as ‘backward’ or unproductive – but evidence shows they are highly productive, sustainable and equitable. These systems preserve rich biodiversity, provide nutritious food and are climate resilient and low carbon. And they are already achieving zero hunger for many Indigenous Peoples, as research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has shown.

This study also found that Indigenous Peoples engaged in traditional activities in remote, biodiverse areas with little reliance on market economies tend to be of normal weight; and that supporting Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and self-determination enhances nutrition and health.

Many neglected and underutilised species that Indigenous Peoples cultivate are nutrient-dense. By contrast Indigenous Peoples who have shifted to modern diets are facing growing health problems (such as obesity and diabetes).

Indigenous Peoples’ food systems also have a critical role to play in informing wider transitions to sustainable and equitable food systems.

Indigenous food systems address multiple SDGs

Earlier this month, Indigenous Peoples from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arctic, academic institutions and UN agencies joined a virtual workshop (PDF) – co-hosted by IIED and Kew – to examine the role of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and interlinked biological and cultural heritage – or biocultural heritage – in achieving the SDGs.

Indigenous representatives stressed that their ancestral food systems, based on centuries of accumulated wisdom, are not only crucial for food security and food sovereignty, but also for cultural identity, spiritual wellbeing, and land stewardship. Indigenous Peoples conserve about 80% of the world’s biodiversity and represent most of the world’s cultural diversity.

Many Indigenous Peoples are reviving their agroecological food systems because they are more resilient to climate change and provide more nutritious diets than modern food systems. And they have proven vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed the vulnerability of global food chains.

Participants heard how, in Kenya, Indigenous seeds – regarded by the Tharaka tribe as sacred – have helped to lessen the impacts of COVID-19 by promoting social cohesion through cultural ceremonies; in Peru, the Potato Park – a Quechua biocultural heritage territory – has donated a ton of potatoes to people in need in Cusco city during the crisis.

In balance with nature

In a livestreamed session from the high Andes, Quechua communities in the Potato Park explained how their Indigenous food system ensures food security despite climate change, and sustains exceptionally high potato diversity, thanks to their ancestral values of reciprocity, solidarity and balance (in society and with nature).

These outcomes are fundamentally due to their ancestral knowledge and holistic worldviews – but are enhanced by respectful research with scientists.

Indigenous food systems from Chad to China are based on ‘seven generation thinking’ – that seeks to ensure future food security. They sustain not only locally adapted Indigenous and traditional crops, but also wild foods and crop wild relatives that Indigenous Peoples from Peru to the Philippines use to enrich their domesticated crops.

Indigenous participants also highlighted the economic importance of Indigenous food systems. In Chad, pastoralism contributes about 40% of GDP, in Kenya, COVID-19 is fuelling a revival of traditional foods while in the Potato Park, communities have developed a range of micro-enterprises – traditional weaving, medicinal plants, traditional restaurant, eco-tourism – that generate income and support the poorest people.


Watch a playlist of video recordings from the workshop above, or on IIED's YouTube channel 

Undermined, overlooked, under threat

But workshop participants identified many challenges facing Indigenous food systems, including the rapid loss of Indigenous knowledge and the destructive impacts of policies and programmes promoting industrial agriculture. Indigenous Peoples are largely left out of policy discussions and face widespread marginalisation and racial discrimination.

Failure to recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights to natural resources and land is a major threat to Indigenous food systems. In northern Thailand, Karen Indigenous farmers can be imprisoned for practising rotational farming even though research has shown this method is sustainable, biodiversity-rich and important for food security; in Northeast India, forest policies that restrict the use of ancestral Lepcha forests are undermining biodiversity-rich Indigenous food systems and promoting a shift to cash crops.

In Chad, land that is vital for sustaining highly resilient and biodiverse pastoralist food systems is being sold off, while in the Arctic region of Russia, industrial development has almost destroyed a traditional food culture of hunting and fishing that is essential for survival.

Indigenous-led research must feed into 2021 summit

More research is urgently needed to address the many challenges facing Indigenous food systems – research that recognises Indigenous Peoples as experts, values Indigenous knowledge and science equally, is led by Indigenous Peoples and draws on different disciplines.

Research priorities include protecting Indigenous land and resource rights; preserving endangered agrobiodiversity and Indigenous knowledge systems; and exploring women’s roles and health and traditional restaurants and cuisine that are crucial for sustaining traditional crops.

Governments and UN agencies must reform agriculture, forest and economic policies that threaten Indigenous food systems, with the active participation of Indigenous Peoples. And they must actively engage Indigenous Peoples in the preparatory process for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and in the summit itself.


The workshop was part of the Indigenous food systems, biocultural heritage and agricultural resilience project funded by the UK Research and Innovation Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), and implemented with Kenya Forestry Research Institute, Lok Chetna Manch (India) and the National Farmer Seed Network (China). We are grateful for the support provided by FAO and Asociacion ANDES (Peru).

About the author

Krystyna Swiderska (krystyna.swiderska@iied.org) is principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group.

Philippa Ryan is a research fellow in Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s economic botany team.

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