Indigenous food systems, biocultural heritage and agricultural resilience

Project
Active
2019 - 2021

IIED is working with partners in the UK, China, India and Kenya to establish a new partnership and network for interdisciplinary research on indigenous food systems. The aim is to link humanities academics, agriculture researchers and indigenous peoples to design new interdisciplinary research on indigenous food systems past and present, from farm to plate, and enhance evidence on the role of indigenous crops in agricultural resilience.

An elderly woman in a field holds crops in the air with both hands

A woman practices the traditional seed selection of finger millet in India (Photo: Nawraj Gurung)

Across the world, indigenous peoples’ food systems are biodiverse, nutritious, climate resilient and low carbon. They play a critical role in the food security, cultural identity, health and wellbeing of some 370-500 million indigenous people.  

Yet indigenous food systems are often viewed as ‘backward’ and are rarely supported by governments. They face threats from agricultural modernisation, top-down development schemes, and conservation initiatives that impose restrictions on harvesting. The transition to modern food systems has led to health problems among indigenous peoples, such as obesity and diabetes, as well as biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.

This project will organise interdisciplinary workshops in the UK, China, India and Kenya, to explore the role of indigenous food systems in agricultural resilience, nutrition and sustainability (Sustainable Development Goal 2), and develop new empowering interdisciplinary research.

IIED will work with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; the Farmer Seed Network (China); the Kenya Forestry Research Institute; and the Indian NGO Lok Chetna Manch. The 18-month project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund.

Objectives

This project aims to:

  • Establish a new interdisciplinary partnership and global network for research on indigenous food systems
  • Design new interdisciplinary research on indigenous food systems past and present, from farm to plate, in China, India and Kenya, and
  • Advocate the importance of traditional agricultural knowledge, crops and biocultural landscapes for agricultural resilience. 

What is IIED doing?

The project aims to design new research that uses interdisciplinary methods such as ethnobotany and archaeobotany. These methods can generate evidence of long-term use of underutilised indigenous crops and hence suitability for local contexts, to complement present-day evidence of agricultural resilience. The project will connect previously separate disciplines, researchers and actors through a series of workshops.

  • A UK workshop in October 2020, involving humanities academics, Southern agricultural researchers, indigenous experts and the Food and Agriculture Organization, will explore the state of knowledge on indigenous food systems and their role in agricultural resilience, nutrition and sustainability.

    The workshop will identify interdisciplinary research gaps, develop empowering research methods, and establish a new partnership and wider network for research on indigenous food systems.
     
  • A workshop in the Stone Village area, northwest Yunnan, southwest China, to bring together humanities, agricultural and indigenous experts to explore Naxi and Moso food systems and jointly design new empowering, interdisciplinary research.
     
  • Similar multi-stakeholder workshops will be organised with Lepcha and Limbu indigenous communities in Kalimpong District, West Bengal, northeast India; and with Mijikenda Kaya forest communities in Rabai, Kilifi County, coastal Kenya.

The new research will be designed to support ongoing, community-led processes to establish biocultural heritage territories in the above indigenous communities in China, India and Kenya.

The resulting insights and evidence on the role of indigenous food systems in resilience, sustainbility and nutrition, and new methods for empowering interdisciplinary research, will be shared through workshop reports, an academic journal article, and international policy meetings, such as the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15).

Additional resources

Biocultural innovation: the key to global food security?, Krystyna Swiderska, Alejandro Argumedo, Yiching Song, Ajay Rastogi, Nawraj Gurung, Chemuku Wekesa (2018), IIED Briefing paper

SDG2: achieving food security, sustainability and resilience using genetic diversity and indigenous knowledge, Krystyna Swiderska, Alejandro Argumedo, Yiching Song, Ajay Rastogi, Nawraj Gurung, Chemuku Wekesa (2016), IIED Briefing paper

Biocultural heritage territories, Alejandro Argumedo, Krystyna Swiderska (2014), IIED Project flyer

Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project page

Indigenous Biocultural Heritage for Sustainable Development project page

Biocultural heritage website 

Donors

Arts and Humanities Research Council 

Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) 

Partners

Farmer Seed Network China

Kenya Forestry Research Institute

Lok Chetna Manch

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

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