Indigenous knowledge and global food systems

Park Narodowy Manú
Indigenous peoples can inspire future global food systems towards more sustainable and just societies

Indigenous people can help deliver concrete actions and ideas on how to reverse biodiversity loss, how to strengthen the resilience of people and the environment, and how we redefine the balance of the needs of man and those of nature.

Covid-19 and its ramifications have posed an existential threat as well as a health threat to the world’s Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous populations are at disproportionate risk during health crises, and are at particular risk of experiencing food insecurity due to a changing climate and years of losing local knowledge about how to co-exist with nature and the environment.

All of this has been further exacerbated in the wake of the pandemic, serving as a reminder of the fragile balance between human and natural environments. Food systems – from production to consumption to disposal - straddle this divide.


Yet there is also an extraordinary level of resilience among Indigenous people, borne from the continued custodianship they provide for land, biodiversity, agroecology and natural resources.

For too long, too many have overlooked the lessons that indigenous people offer for the provision of a healthy, nutritious diet that also respects and preserves the natural environment. As the world begins to look beyond the pandemic to recovery and repair, the time is ripe to advance more of what is right in our food systems and to this end, indigenous people have a lot to offer.

The Covid-19 pandemic has emerged on the eve of what is the biggest opportunity to date to reconfigure global food systems for people and planet.

The single focus of UN Food Systems Summit is to raise ambition and deliver actions to turn around the current trajectory of the sustainable development agenda and ensure that the next 10 years will bring concrete outcomes. 

And between now and next year, every region, every government, every organization and member of the public will have a chance to contribute to better, more resilient food systems.

Indigenous people can help deliver concrete actions and ideas on how to reverse biodiversity loss, how to strengthen the resilience of people and the environment, and how we redefine the balance of the needs of man and those of nature.


I am unwavering in my commitment to ensure the voices of Indigenous people are elevated and given an equal platform. The fragility of the natural environment and the impacts of climate change make these communities the most vulnerable among us. 

To indigenous people, food is not only a product but a process. We must work to ensure that the world benefits from Indigenous knowledge, wisdom, and values. 

Food as a process underpins the concept of “food systems”, which involves an acknowledgement of the networks of land, labour and livelihoods that underpin diets, health and development.

Few others have the insights of indigenous communities about how food and its consumers fit within a wider ecosystem. Among farmers in the Rwenzori region of Uganda, for example, the use of indigenous weather forecasts was found to positively influence crop diversification, soil and water conservation.

Indigenous communities have hundreds of years of understanding of how this can inform and improve the sustainability of food systems. Combining this knowledge with scientific forecasting could be a crucial step towards a more resilient, inclusive system.


Food as a culture is another important incentive for the advancement of biodiversity and more efforts are needed to value and re-introduce native, indigenous foods and cuisines. 

The most fascinating part of my PhD - tracing the evolution of the banana plant and its pests from South East Asia to East African highlands - was the complex knowledge of the different varieties and the value each variety has for different cultures.

Until then, to me, a banana tree was a banana tree. But to many of the traditional communities I met across Asia and Africa, each tree had a more profound, specific value. Each one is grown, cared for and named for its special attributes.

As those who I met said to me: “You serve this to a special guest like your son-in-law - it has the greatest aroma” or “We grow this variety because it is least damaged by pests”.

Indigenous communities, as stewards of the environment, have demonstrated not only great ability to conserve land, resources and biodiversity but also water and soil. For indigenous peoples, the environment represents the future for children, something that is often lost on other parts of humankind.


The Food Systems Summit, then, is intent on setting the agenda for the next decade to leverage food systems to deliver on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. 

Ending poverty, gender inequality and the restrictions to good health and wellbeing cannot be achieved without improving the production, distribution and consumption of food. But it also requires tackling the prejudices and discrimination faced by indigenous people.

Indigenous people account for an estimated 6 percent of the global population, yet represent 15 per cent of the world’s poor.

Food systems, through their interconnected relationship to human progress, offer the opportunity to address these inequalities, particularly for Indigenous people. As we look to address vulnerabilities, fragilities and the need to strengthen resilience towards shocks, we must not fail to address the unique needs of indigenous communities.

Finally, a major objective of the summit is to leverage food systems to improve global nutrition because without safe, affordable and nutritious food, people are unable to reach their potential irrespective of where they are in the world.


This has prompted a renewed appreciation for indigenous foods, which come with diverse nutritional benefits, and which in turn preserves agricultural biodiversity.

The global Seed Vault under the custodianship of the Norwegian government and the Crop Trust puts a premium on conserving plant material for Indigenous communities, thus saving not only the physical seeds but the knowledge and values that come with these seeds linked to all indigenous peoples of the world.  

Interventions with the Awajún people in Peru, for example, have focused on recovering traditional seeds and crops after a 2009 study found a decline in the 215 local foods previously available, ranging from manioc and banana to shrimp, fish and game, over the previous five years. 

While the theme of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – “Covid-19 and Indigenous people’s resilience” – may reflect the response to the pandemic among these communities, it also hints at the lessons offered for the rest of the world. 


I hope that Indigenous leaders will seize the moment to join the global dialogue on transforming food systems in the year ahead.

Through the Food Systems Summit, the global community has an opportunity to define how the world builds back better from the pandemic.

Indigenous people can help deliver concrete actions and ideas on how to reverse biodiversity loss, how to strengthen the resilience of people and the environment, and how we redefine the balance of the needs of man and those of nature.

But that can only succeed if everyone is given an equal voice in the dialogue.

This Author 

Dr Agnes Kalibata, UN Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit.