Are indigenous food systems the solution to food security? This question, together with the answer in the affirmative, is increasingly becoming loud and with good reason. Indigenous food systems are rich in biodiversity. They are resilient to climate whims, are environmentally sustainable, and produce nutritious food. Why are these features important? Because they resonate with the premise of food security as advanced by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Furthermore, they provide solutions to the key challenges facing global food systems, outlined in the 2011 Report by the UK government’s Foresight program.
The world is currently rife with malnutrition, and climate change is taking a toll on food systems. The global population meanwhile is projected to reach over 9 billion by 2050. This has many ramifications. Most notable is the fact that demand for food is certain to increase exponentially. That food has to be produced. There is already evidence that industrial foods, despite their enhanced yields, cannot sustainably meet this food demand. As such, the case to promote indigenous systems has never been more justified. The following are some of the reasons:
Climate change threatens the future of food production. That much is true. Such adverse climatic conditions have to be tackled. On the other hand, it is also true that climate change is the negative outcome of environmentally destructive food systems. A major challenge facing the world is to find ways to produce crops that are resilient to adverse climatic conditions. The other is to produce those crops using environmentally constructive food systems. Only indigenous, as opposed to the modern or industrialized food system, meets both conditions.
Originally adapted to their localities, indigenous crops have built resilience to crop pests and diseases. They have also enhanced their tolerance to temperature extremes, including flooding and drought. They are also cultivated, harvested, and consumed based on the primary value of ecological sensibility.
Indigenous knowledge is associated with vast and diverse food biodiversity. There is a need to recognize and do further research to identify the rich nutrient composition of indigenous food. Doing so could lay the foundation for the much-needed knowledge for building programs that promote good nutrition. Indigenous communities and individuals would directly benefit from such programs, regardless of age.
However, more than direct benefits to indigenous communities, it could also reveal new insights for promoting nutritional health interventions in general. This would significantly contribute to addressing the third dimension of food security postulated by FAO. That is, it is for every person to be able to utilize food to achieve a state of nutritional well-being.
One of the challenges to global food systems is to eradicate hunger. Indigenous food systems have a massive potential to contribute toward eradicating hunger and reducing poverty, thereby contributing to food security. Research by FAO has previously found that indigenous food systems are already playing an instrumental role in achieving zero hunger for the majority of indigenous people all over the developing and developed world. This is because these foods are not only available but are also accessible to members of the community. They are also easy to grow, being a product of knowledge from cultures and patterns of life long evolved and adapted.
Indigenous food systems maintain genetic diversity, thus ensuring high quality of diets. This is important in controlling the epidemics of obesity and other non-communicable diseases that are currently rife in developed countries. North America, for example, is host to many indigenous crops, but around 75 percent of genetic diversity has been lost, according to FAO. This has led to a reduction in the nutritional quality of the diet. The need to restore genetic diversity cannot, therefore, be overemphasized. It starts with indigenous food systems.
Indigenous food systems are built on treasures of knowledge taken from cultures and patterns of life long evolved and adapted. They have lasted millennia and have proved a key source of food, fuel, and fiber for people all over the world. As the world grapples with climate change, the need to feed its exploding population, these systems can play a central role. They can be key to building sustainable food systems.