Indigenous food systems, biocultural heritage, and agricultural resilience

Studying indigenous food systems, their histories, and the role of local crops in agricultural resilience. 

A woman practices the traditional seed selection of finger millet in India

Across the world, indigenous peoples’ food systems are biodiverse, nutritious, climate resilient and low carbon. They play a critical role in the food security, cultural identity, health and wellbeing of some 370-500 million indigenous people. However, they face threats from agricultural modernisation, top-down development schemes, and conservation initiatives that impose restrictions on harvesting.

The transition to modern food systems has led to health problems among indigenous peoples, such as obesity and diabetes, as well as biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.

Key objectives of this project are to:

  • Advocate the importance of traditional agricultural knowledge, crops and biocultural landscapes for agricultural resilience.
  • Establish a new interdisciplinary partnership and global network for research on indigenous food systems.
  • To design new interdisciplinary research on indigenous food systems past and present, from farm to plate, in China, India and Kenya, and enhance evidence on the role of indigenous crops in agricultural resilience.

Led by the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), this project is centred on organising interdisciplinary workshops to explore the role of indigenous food systems in agricultural resilience, nutrition, and sustainability. A UK workshop in October 2020, involving academics ranging from humanities and botanical disciplines, Southern agricultural researchers, indigenous experts and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), will explore the state of knowledge on indigenous food systems and their role in agricultural resilience, nutrition and sustainability.

Further workshops are planned to explore foodsystems and design new interdisciplinary research in (i) the Stone Village area, northwest Yunnan, southwest China, with Naxi and Moso communities (II) Lepcha and Limbu indigenous communities in Kalimpong District, West Bengal, northeast India (iii) Mijikenda Kaya forest communities in Rabai, Kilifi County, coastal Kenya.

The project is designed to create new approaches that support and build on IIEDs existing partnerships and ongoing community-led processes to establish biocultural heritage territories in the above indigenous communities in China, India and Kenya.

The project aims to design research approaches that includes interdisciplinary methods such as ethnobotany, ethnohistory and archaeobotany. Comparing ethnobotanically orientated oral histories with data from archival and archaeological sources has potential to generate evidence of long-term use of underutilised indigenous and traditional crops, and hence, their potential suitability for local contexts, complementing present-day evidence of agricultural resilience.