Bioversity international



The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill University published in 2009 “Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems: the many dimensions of culture, diversity and environment for nutrition and health”. This publication was the result of months of fieldwork and a collaboration between indigenous leaders, McGill University-CINE, and the FAO Food and Nutrition Division. The publication brought attention to the broad food base and consumption of nutritious and medicinal edibles by Indigenous Peoples. The food systems of the Inuit, Nuxalk and Gwich’ in of Canada, the Awajun of Peru, the Ingano of Colombia, the Maasai of Kenya, the Igbo of Nigeria, the Dalit and Bhil of India, the Karen of Thailand, the Ainu of Japan, and the inhabitants of Pohnpei Micronesian island were analyzed, showing how their food systems were based on food species and varieties/cultivars that number from 35 to almost 400.

This 2009 publication was the first book published by FAO that analyzed the comparative characteristics of diverse Indigenous Peoples’ food systems from across the world. The book drew the interest of experts, researchers and policymakers towards the tremendous – and often underestimated – richness of knowledge that the traditions and ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples have maintained and nourished over centuries. The essence of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge systems is largely encapsulated in how they generate, harvest, hunt and grow such diverse foods.

In 2013, FAO and McGill University-CINE published “Indigenous Peoples’ food systems & well-being: interventions & policies for healthy communities”. This second publication was the result of nearly 10 years of extended research about the challenges that Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are facing in a fast-changing world. The researchers analyzed the challenges of the indigenous communities presented in the 2009 publication, concentrating their findings on aspects of health and nutrition. The second publication provided policy recommendations to help protect traditional knowledge and customary governance rules, with the ultimate goal of preserving the communities’ nutrition and health, with particular emphasis on children.

In 2015, the recently established FAO Indigenous Peoples Team hosted in Rome a caucus with indigenous representatives and leaders from the seven socio-cultural regions. The caucus identified priorities for their work with FAO based on the organization’s technical expertise. One of the most salient requests from indigenous leaders at the plenary discussions was for FAO to create a working group on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. FAO management agreed, and ever since the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit has been coordinating a task group on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems involving other technical divisions as well as key research organizations.

In 2018, FAO joined forces with different Indigenous Peoples’ organizations, research centres, the United Nations (UN) and international organizations to host the First High-Level Expert Seminar on Indigenous Food Systems at its Rome headquarters. The Expert Seminar brought together more than 200 participants including 70 speakers representing indigenous leaders, researchers, governments and FAO experts from different fields. The main result of this Expert Seminar was the agreement about the need to create a Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems that would bring together universities, research centres, Indigenous Peoples and UN agencies. The Global-Hub would be dedicated to facilitating a dialogue between scientists, academics and Indigenous Peoples to co-create knowledge, reshape terminology and reexamine conceptual frameworks. The Global-Hub is expected to contribute to the ongoing global debate on sustainable food systems and climate resilience.

In past decades, the world witnessed a series of global challenges that have influenced conceptual discussions and policy debates, placing food systems at the centre of the discussion within the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) as well as FAO Technical Committees on Agriculture (COAG), Forestry (COFO) and Fisheries (COFI).

The 2007 subprime mortgage crisis spilled over into the food market and generated a spike of food prices that pushed several countries across the world into a critical food-provision shortage. In parallel, the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the environment, exacerbated by climate change and weather variability, are increasing the extinction of species and damaging ecosystems. More and more, experts have moved from production and food availability concerns to looking more broadly through the lens of food systems. Beyond the food security pillars of availability, access, stability and utilization, this lens started to incorporate considerations such as value chains, local food production, food losses and waste, agroecology, food sovereignty, environmental externalities, biodiversity, climate, nutrition, health, energy and input balances, as well as the interrelations between the different players along the food trade and production value chain. The global conceptual debate moved from food security to food systems.

Today, food systems based on agriculture and livestock consume more than 70 percent of the water (FAO, 2017b), 30 percent of the fossil fuels (OECD, 2010) and use 38 percent of the land (FAO, 2011) in the world. The debate has been evolving towards the importance of reviewing the sustainability of production, distribution and commercialization to make recommendations that transform food systems, making them efficient, sustainable, nutritious and respectful of the environment.

Cognizant of this debate and of the different paradigms being considered, in 2017 the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit, in an effort to develop a collaborative methodology for analyzing Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, approached the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, The Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty (TIP), The French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), FAO’s Pastoralist Knowledge Hub (PKH), FAO Fisheries Division, FAO Food and Nutrition Division, and the Mountain Partnership Secretariat. Inspired by the Self-evaluation and Holistic Assessment of climate Resilience of Farmers and Pastoralists (SHARP)1 and other participatory research methods, this new methodology could be used to profile the status and trends of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems across the world and continue the work started by FAO in 2009.

The book you are about to read constitutes the third volume on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. The objective of this publication is to (1) acknowledge the contributions that Indigenous Peoples can make to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and to (2) advocate for these contributions and associated food systems to be taken into consideration in ongoing discussions about sustainable and efficient food systems that could support better nutrition and health.

Co-published by FAO and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, this publication builds on the analysis by a Scientific Editorial Committee of field research carried out with the involvement of participating Indigenous Peoples’ communities. Their rich discussions, their interest in the work and their level of participation, often setting aside their chores to talk to the researchers and local organizations, made the difference and informed the content of this book. The Indigenous Peoples participating in the profiling of the Indigenous Peoples’ food systems are eager to share with the rest of the world the fundamental aspects of their ancestral knowledge that may contribute to better understandings of what makes food systems sustainable and resilient.

This book makes valuable contribution to global food system debates, including, but not limited to, the ability to generate food without depleting the natural resource base but rather preserving and enhancing the biodiversity and health of the ecosystems, the use of renewable energy sourced from within the food system, the importance of customary governance mechanisms and institutions, and the role that traditional knowledge plays in climate resilience.

At the same time, the research has revealed the tremendous forces and pressures that Indigenous Peoples across the world withstand to maintain their livelihoods and food systems. Rural-urban migration, food aid schemes that are not culturally appropriate, transition towards a more monetized economy, abandonment of traditional practices, loss of knowledge and languages, land grabbing and encroachment of Indigenous Peoples’ territories, influx of highly processed imported foods, pollution of waters, lands and resources, inexorable deforestation, forced displacement, and increasing rates of suicide and self-harm amongst indigenous youth are some of the most acute issues threatening the future of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems.

Chaired by the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit, the Scientific Editorial Committee, composed of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, TIP, IRD, Massey University, the PKH, and the FAO Food and Nutrition Division, reviewed all the materials from the field, selecting 8 profiles out of the 12 initially prepared by the local indigenous organizations and field researchers. The 8 profiles presented in this book correspond to the food systems of: the Baka in Cameroon, the Inari Sámi in Finland, the Khasi in India, the MelanesiansSI2 in Solomon Islands, the Kel Tamasheq in Mali, the Bhotia and Anwal in India, the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua in Colombia, and the Maya Ch’orti’ in Guatemala.

We hope that the present volume will encourage researchers to learn more about Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, policymakers to incorporate new knowledges and values, country representatives to respect other forms of knowledge, and practitioners to influence the global debate with stronger field-basedgrounded evidence.

We hope that the present volume will encourage countries to include Indigenous Peoples’ representatives in policy discussions that affect humankind.

Rome, March 2021.

  • 1 For further information, see
  • 2 Note from the editors: Melanesia region, inhabited by the Melanesian people, covers an important area that includes Papua New Guinea Island, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. There is hence an important cultural diversity amongst the Melanesians, who can locally belong to subgroups. The referencing to MelanesianSolomon Islands, noted afterwards MelanesianSI, indicates that the authors are referring to the Melanesians inhabiting Solomon Islands, in absence of indication of any further specific identification.