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Indigenous Food Systems for Sustainable Future

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in 2018, global emissions due to agriculture (within the farm gate and including related land use/land use change) were 9.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2eq). Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from crop and livestock activities contributed 5.3 billion tonnes CO2eq in 2018, a 14 percent growth since 2000.

Since the evolutionary process, humanity has developed and applied various food systems and practices. This knowledge has brought with it the settlement of cultures and this knowledge has been transferred through generations. Indigenous food systems, which remain today, are an illustration of the ways that cultural knowledge regarding food systems has transitioned from the past to the present.

During the Climate Talks at the COP26 Conference the importance of indigenous peoples and their culture was highlighted. Yon Fernández de Larrinoa, the Team Leader of the FAO Indigenous Peoples Team, stated that indigenous peoples live in unity and harmony with the environment and that the world's acceptance of these living practices is very important for the long-term protection of nature against the devastating effects of the climate crisis.

Learning the know-how of the systems established by indigenous peoples and applying this knowledge to the way of life in an industrialized world, of course, brings with it a very different food production practice from the routines and expectations of consumers.

So, what are the elements that create the indigenous peoples’ food systems?

According to FAO, there are five common elements to the food systems of indigenous peoples:

  1. Deep understanding of mother nature and its cycles

  2. Consolidation of food production processes

  3. Going to distant areas to collect food with a hunter-gatherer understanding and the consumption of the food in the region after collecting it

  4. Ensuring food production under local (regional) management

  5. The importance of "spirituality"

What can industrial farming learn from the agricultural practices of indigenous peoples?

Underlining that the food systems established by indigenous peoples have the power to produce food worldwide, it has been predicted that urbanised food systems can be established using both long-lived and domesticated plant seeds – when compared to industrial systems. In addition, it has been stated that knowing how to protect the tons of food that will be produced plays a key role. United Nations officials agree that indigenous peoples' food systems can be scaled in the same way as industrial agriculture by using proper techniques.

‘’If indigenous peoples had the same level of access to land and resources in finance that non-indigenous peoples have in agriculture, my hypothesis is that there would actually be greater production of food.’’ Says Mikaila Way, who leads FAO’s indigenous peoples’ unit in North America

Is it possible to make industrial agriculture more sustainable using indigenous agriculture practices?

Consuming non-local fruits and vegetables all year round means that these foods are constantly transported over long distances globally, resulting in a large carbon footprint. In contrast, seasonally available food in local populations' food systems does not need to be transported very far.

A shift from the industrialised mindset surrounding agriculture would mean the focus on the role of nature in our food systems and the essence of food production, reflecting indigenous food systems. Looking at its essence, the fertilization of a plant and its becoming food is a phenomenon that mother nature created in a cycle without human intervention. In contrast, [anthropic] food production uses human intervention to obtain food from nature. At this point, an imperative method reflecting indigenous practices is regenerative agriculture and alternatives.

Today, the world's staple food consists of a few crops such as wheat, rice, soy and corn. The monocultural nature of our crops means the lack of biodiversity. Therefore, the industry can work on the diversification of these basic foods. It is arguable that if action is not taken, food production and consumption may become vulnerable to price shocks, to the consequences of unsustainable food production and the proliferation of packaged foods. Thus, just as with indigenous peoples' lifestyles, industrial food production practices can increase the diversity of crops grown to provide more nutritious, healthy and sustainably produced foods.

Closing thoughts

It is of great importance that we act collaboratively as soon as possible since certain countries globally are already faced with food shortages and it is an undeniable fact that the consequences of unsustainable food systems have been and will be felt in the future. For these reasons, an action plan needs to be drawn up, prioritizing the regions and communities most vulnerable to malnourishment. In this regard, resorting to a reformative production system by integrating indigenous food systems around the world is of great importance both in preventing food shortages and in building a more sustainable future.


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