On the west coast of Canada, large amounts of sediment pushed together by man-made boulder walls have created a series of flattened beaches, which provide an optimal environment for clams to grow. These ‘clam gardens’ have been used by indigenous people for generations to cultivate all manner of sea life, from barnacles to sea cucumbers, with archaeologists reporting that the oldest sites date back to 3,500 years ago.

This is just one example of an indigenous food system; a method of cultivating local ingredients based on native-born knowledge and innovation over the span of multiple generations, and which is helping to sustain communities worldwide. Indigenous food systems exist as a testament to the endurance of local peoples throughout the centuries, and some experts argue they are now more important than ever.

According to the United Nations (UN), there are over 370 million indigenous people living across 70 countries, making up just under 6% of the world’s population. Not only do indigenous food systems provide much-needed nutrients and diet diversity to their local population, but they also demonstrate innovation, adaptability, and biodiversity in the face of major challenges, such as climate change.

In recent years, there has been an increased focus in the role that indigenous food systems can play in providing food security, while enhancing biodiversity across the world. This was a key topic at the fourth global meeting of the Indigenous People’s Forum at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which took place in February this year. But why are indigenous food systems so important, and what challenges do indigenous people in those regions face?

Why are indigenous food systems important?

A crucial reason why indigenous food systems are important is that they can contribute to food security and the eradication of hunger and poverty.

Many indigenous communities are able to find ways to grow and collect crops that are resilient to climate change. One example is in Bangladesh, whose precarious position on the Ganges Delta makes floods a regular occurrence. Regular farmland can be irreparably damaged by flash floods. This has led to an innovation in the form of floating gardens – collections of rafts made from straw and water hyacinth that are bound together, covered with soil and inundated with seeds for vegetables and okra.

There are more examples of such innovations in indigenous food systems. In Tunisia, the Amazigh people make use of the “jessour system,” whereby dams and terraces collect run-off water and reroute it to enable cultivation of olives, fruit trees and grains. An article in Stanford Social Innovation Review highlights the plight of Inuit peoples in Nunatsiavut – an autonomous coastline region in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Across this barely accessible area of land, the government had set up community freezers, allowing food to be stored, purchased, and donated across localities depending on their individual needs.

This February, researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa published a study highlighting the role indigenous agriculture could play in producing food while supporting biodiversity and indigenous well-being in Hawaii. The report’s authors found that in one experimental model, the state could have sustained around 250,000 acres of traditional agroecosystems, which would have boosted its food production to more than one million metric tonnes of food annually.

“Our study really highlights the relevance of restoring indigenous agricultural systems today,” said Dr Tamara Ticktin, professor of botany at UH Manoa and co-author on the study, in a press statement. “These systems are flexible and adaptive, and include both traditional and modern crops relevant today.”

Adding nutritional value to indigenous communities

Many indigenous foodstuffs can introduce greater nutritional value to local diets. For example, the moringa tree – grown by indigenous peoples in India, Ethiopia and the Philippines – offers edible leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers and flowers that are not only edible but rich in healthy antioxidants.

In 2017, a study in the Lancet reported that the Tsimane people in the forests of Bolivia had the healthiest hearts in the world, despite adopting a similar way of live to human civilisations thousands of years ago. The study found that the main chunk of their diet was made up of rice, maize and local ingredients such as manioc root and plantains.

On its website, the FAO says that it has begun coordinating analysis of the composition of several indigenous foods to highlight their nutritional content as well as identify where they lack nutrients, in order to support FAO programmes promoting food security. Grassroots organisation Slow Food has taken a wide interest in the nutritional value of indigenous foods. For example, the CovCheg project mapped out 40 local varieties of vegetables, fruits, traditional home-made sweets, animal breeds, wild plants and other specialties linked to villages and climatic zones of Azerbaijan’s Greater Caucasus Mountains.

Environmental value of indigenous food systems

Indigenous food systems often play a wider role in environmental conservation. For example, the Cherangani people in Kenya have returned to traditional agroforestry methods, such as intercropping avocado, bean and coffee crops, to help cut down on soil erosion and reduce water loss.

“Indigenous peoples more than any other peoples in the world are deeply connected with nature and with natural resources, so whatever they do is in relation to the concept of sustainability, of protection and conservations of natural resources,” says Mattia Prayer Galletti, lead technical specialist focusing on indigenous peoples and tribal issues at IFAD.

However, climate change and manmade impacts are ultimately still having an impact on indigenous food systems. According to the World Bank, between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles of forest to deforestation. This is a blow considering that 750 million people in forests, including 60 million indigenous people, and is particularly damaging from a food perspective.

Take the bunya nut, which is similar to a chestnut in both appearance and taste, and has been consumed in large quantities for generations by Australian Aboriginals. The nuts grow on enormous pines in the few rainforest regions of Australia, but these trees are becoming harder to find as a result of rampant deforestation across the country.

According to the FAO, there are growing concerns over environmental degradation as a major aspect of indigenous peoples’ declining use of their indigenous food. These concerns include but aren’t limited to biodiversity loss across wild and cultivated species, the impact of man-made inventions such as hydroelectric dams and biological pollutants, and climate change.

Using indigenous people’s knowledge and special projects

The FAO has recommended that more cooperative arrangements are required to conserve habitats and resources, and that further research is required by academics to find ways to strengthen the resilience of indigenous cultures to manmade and environmental threats. An increased effort should also be made to try and reverse restrictive regulations, such as those that curtail indigenous peoples’ hunting practices.

IFAD is aiming to facilitate better dialogue between indigenous peoples and the UN, and this has led to the development of the Indigenous People’s Forum. Its aim is to discuss and find solutions to the challenges facing indigenous people, food security included.

“It’s a platform where the objective is to establish a constant dialogue between different indigenous peoples, to put them in the driving seat in a way, giving them the opportunity to review what we are doing, to ask for guidance and to give us recommendations,” says Galletti.

Food security will continue to be the major factor driving the importance of indigenous food systems in years to come, particularly as industrialisation and climate change continue to take root. Nevertheless, as organisations create support networks for indigenous cultures and renowned chefs introduce indigenous foodstuffs to their menus, awareness of these issues is growing.