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The importance of Indigenous foodways

By: Kathleen A. Merrigan

I participated in one of the famous Terra Madre Slow Food meetings in Italy years ago. At the opening ceremony, Indigenous peoples from around the world formed a procession through the venue, donning traditional wear and carrying objects of significance to their communities. It was beautiful and exciting but more importantly, it was a poignant reminder of the wisdom of Indigenous knowledge. Every year, I become more convinced that if we are to meet the challenges of extreme climate change and transform food systems so that they are resilient and equitable, we must listen to Indigenous communities, stand with them and include them in decision making on land that they have sustained for thousands of years.  

Many people are excited about the potential for innovation in agtech and I count myself among them. Yet in our rush to Silicon-Valley-ify our food system, we have overlooked the urgency to better understand, honour, safeguard, preserve and transmit traditional knowledge. I suspect that in the United States, more money was poured into the MIT Food Computer, which turned out to be a hoax, than was invested in preservation of landraces curated by Indigenous peoples and understanding their protocols against overharvesting of species. 

Three current events suggest a new opportunity to elevate and amplify Indigenous voices to help us achieve more sustainable food systems.  

First, at least as far back as the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, governments have recognized Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of, and contributions to, the protection of biodiversity. The full promise of that Convention has yet to be realized, as scant resources have been devoted to its implementation. That may be changing: In September 2019 at the UN Climate Action Summit, Emmanuel Farber, CEO of Danone – citing pressure from Generation Z consumers – announced that 19 giant companies have pledged to work together to protect biodiversity. This is great!

Second, soil is in the headlines. Native Americans have long championed three sister planting and other practices that build healthy soil, but until recently, soil building was not on the policy agenda in any significant way. Now, even American presidential candidates are advocating for regenerative agriculture and elevating the importance of soil health, while at the same time public and private sector leaders are working to establish carbon markets to reward soil sequestration. Exciting! 

Third, there is a new focus among sustainable agriculture advocates on strategies to address food justice, entrenched inequalities and social inclusion. At the same time, the American Indian Agricultural Fund, established by settlement monies from resolution of the class-action lawsuit Keepseagle v. Vilsack over historic USDA discrimination, is distributing its first round of grants to help Native American farmers and ranchers. Terrific!

I will now say something that I have never said before: The more meetings, the better! It is time for all of us to find ways to raise Indigenous voices and confront issues of food sovereignty. There are some good recent efforts to note. In 2018, the Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN held its first High Level Expert Seminar on Indigenous Food Systems, Building on Traditional Knowledge to Achieve Zero Hunger. Last fall in Japan, Slow Food hosted Indigenous leaders from 27 countries to discuss the contributions of traditional knowledge to sustainable food systems, climate change and world hunger. Following up on this, Slow Food will host an Indigenous Peoples Terra Madre for the Americans in Mexico in February 2020.

For our part, the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University collaborated with the University of Hawaii and FoodTank to host a FoodTank Summit on the “Wisdom of Indigenous Foodways” this January in Tempe, Arizona. Topics included the importance of local agriculturally derived knowledge, seed sovereignty, wild foods and contemporary Indigenous gastronomy. For more information, visit our website: foodsystems.asu.edu.

Biodiversity, healthy soils and food justice – all topics on the agenda for which Indigenous peoples have insights and can teach traditional wisdom to academics like me, along with business leaders, politicians and sustainable agriculture advocates.  

A recent interview with Kathleen Merrigan can be found at: foodtank.com/news/2020/01/the-wisdom-of-indigenous-foodways-podcast

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