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Indigenous food systems and nutrition in the spotlight

Indigenous food systems and nutrition in the spotlight

The second global meeting of the Indigenous People’s Forum convened on 12-13 February 2015 in IFAD’s headquarters. Held every two years, the Forum is a dialogue between the United Nations, represented by IFAD, and representatives of indigenous peoples from all over the world acting as ambassadors of their own experiences, traditions and cultures. This year the focus was on indigenous peoples’ food systems and sustainable livelihoods.

Indigenous peoples have a long history of food systems depending on the traditional knowledge of their local ecosystems. In addition, they play a vital role in preserving and recovering the natural environment that shaped their livelihoods and cultures for centuries, acting as stewards of biodiversity.

In this regard, the Forum hosted a session on the relationship between indigenous food systems and nutrition, and two experts on the subject were invited to speak: Harriet Kuhnlein, Professor Emerita of Human Nutrition and founding Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill University in Canada, and Treena Delormier, Assistant Professor, Native Hawaiian and Indigenous Health, University of Hawaii.

Nutritional value of indigenous foods

CINE’s research started in Canada with the Mohawk Council of Kahnáwake, located near Montréal, Québec. Interested in understanding the impact of indigenous food in indigenous peoples’ diets, Kuhnlein and her team developed a methodology on documenting traditional food systems to understand their nutrient composition, benefits and threats. The data collected would then be kept to help the community preserve knowledge on local food systems.

Through the methodology, they developed a range of case studies that involve 12 communities worldwide. CINE’s team found that generally, when indigenous products are part of people’s diets, they have a positive nutritional impact and should be protected. An example that surprised me comes from the Inuit community, where the traditional food is muktuk, the skin and underlying blubber of the whale. These products contain vitamin C and A, besides micro-nutrients such as iron and zinc, that can be of particular relevance in areas where the growth of fruits and vegetables is constrained by ecological features.