Indigenous Peoples Food Systems in Transition: How can ideas from Ethnobiology Inform Work on Food Environments

Session Organizer(s): 
Bronwen Powell
Terry Sunderland


The international food security and nutrition community has engaged the idea of food environment as a useful frame work . The food environment is described at including four main components that shape dietary choice: availability, accessibility, convenience and desirability. Emerging evidence suggests that changes in the food environment, shapes changes in dietary choice and is at least in for dietary transitions seen around the world. Much could be learnt by understanding the role of the food environment as a key driver of dietary transitions away from traditional food systems.


Ethnobiology understands traditional food use as a central link between Indigenous People and their lands, as part of complex bio-cultural systems. Increasingly Indigenous Peoples’, Land Rights and the Right to food are seen as related issues . Ethnobiology focuses not only on the nutritional and ecological impotence of traditional foods, but also on their cultural and spiritual importance. Ethnobiology is thus well positioned to shed light on the least well understood aspect of food environments: desirability.


This session aims to explore the ways traditional and Indigenous foods, food systems and food production landscapes are embedded with social, cultural and spiritual meaning and the ways these meanings shape food preferences and desirability. Food preferences are linked to social and cultural identity. Many Indigenous communities have a sacred relationship with food and or the landscapes they manage to produce food . Lack of access to traditional lands is increasingly framed as a food sovereignty and right to food issue. To date there has been little effort to understand how these social, cultural and spiritual connections to food mediate desirability and either mitigate or perpetuate dietary transitions away from healthy traditional diets. We will explore the ways that social, cultural and spiritual meanings of traditional foods, as well as the attachment to places (food production landscapes), shapes dietary transitions for Indigenous communities around the world.