VIII. Indigenous Peoples Food Systems in Transition: How Can ideas from Ethnobiology Inform Work on Food Environments

Session Date and Time: 
Thursday, 9 May 2019 - 1:30pm to 5:30pm
Barnett Hall (Music Bldg)
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.



Time Abstract
, Shauna - Rutgers School of Public Health
, Selena - Montana State University

Food procurement has notably shifted over the past few decades from subsistence- to market-food environments in what we term the ‘food environment transition’. We share a conceptual framework for characterizing the food environment transition. Our framework is supported by food environment typologies and metrics while being aligned with the nutrition transition framework. Through case studies, we illustrate that as populations and communities move through the different stages of the food environment transition, there is a shift from mainly relying on natural food environments to market environments. We use the five original patterns of the nutrition transition framework as well as a sixth pattern focused on sustainable diets for supporting planetary health. It is expected that understanding the food environment transition and identifying ways to measure this transition will better inform the design, implementation, and evaluation of policies and programs aimed at supporting healthy diets from sustainable food systems.

, Selena - Food and Health Lab, Montana State University

Globalization, urbanization, and income growth have spurred a rapid food environment transition throughout China with implications for food choices, dietary quality, and planetary health. This presentation depicts the food environment transition in an indigenous Akha community in the uplands of Southwestern China using ethnobiological data on land-use and dietary changes over a ten-year period. Traditional Akha diets are primarily plant-based with reliance on wild and natural food environments from a diversified mosaic of agro-forests, forests, home gardens, mixed crop fields, and paddies. With increased commercialization of natural resources, road building, and other pressures, traditional Akha food environments are shifting towards increased reliance on market food environments with greater consumption of processed food, away-from-home food, animal products, and sugar-sweetened beverages. Results highlight that ecological knowledge and management of natural food environments can provide sustainable food system strategies that reconcile food procurement with planetary health in the context of global change.

, Victoria
, Bronwen
, Isabel
, Álvaro
, Sandrine
, Maximilien

The diets of contemporary hunter-gatherers are diverse and nutritious, but rapidly changing. To explore pathways through which food availability and accessibility might alter contemporary hunter-gatherers’ diets, we analyse the diets and sources of foods of three groups: the Baka, Cameroon (n=160), the Tsimane’, Bolivia (n=124) and the Punan Tubu, Indonesia (n=109). People living in isolated villages have more diverse diets than those living in villages closer to markets and availability of nutritionally important foods (i.e., fruits, vegetables and animal foods) decreases with increasing market integration, while fats and sweets availability increases. Differences relate to changes in the food environment (e.g., seasonality and village access to wild and/or market foods), rather than to individual characteristics (e.g.., time allocation or income), probably because food sharing smooths individual differences in food consumption. We conclude discussing the sociocultural importance of traditional food systems for healthy biocultural landscapes and the ethnobiological implications of food transitions.

, Timothy - McGill University

Converging recognition of social and nutrition values of traditional foods within a multi-ethnic context is central to transition of East African food systems in policy and practice. Drawing on a foundation of colonial-era sciences and institutions, ethnobiological research over the past four decades has emerged as a primarily African undertaking delineated by international development funding, but also by indigenous cultural and social values and knowledge. While the combined leadership of ethnobiologists, agriculturalists and nutritionists in shaping food system transition is pragmatic and empirical, inherent in successful initiatives at the national level are in-common cultural links to food, as well as distinct food identify and heritage of individuals. Professionals at the forefront of the transition process reflect the values and actions of the greater populace within an emerging market-orientation. At the same time they are essential to outreach supporting the environmental, economic and health importance of traditional foods within sustainable systems.

, Bronwen - Penn State University
, Zachary - Penn State University
, Katheryn - University of Toronto, Max Planck Institute
, Yooinn - Penn State University
, Mackenzie - Penn State University

While food aversions are largely innate, preferences are strongly shaped by culture. We generally know little of how cultural preferences for foods have evolved over time, with the exception of a few well documented cases of genes and diets co-evolution. In East Africa, preference for bitter or slimy vegetables is a marker ethnic group belonging. To understand preference for slimy and bitter vegetables, we conducted a literature review of vegetable preferences for 73 East African ethnic groups that had records in the ethnographic database D-Place. Ethnic groups who prefer bitter vegetables all live in areas with a high prevalence of malaria. Most ethnic groups who prefer slimy vegetables are Nilotic speakers who are not pure pastoralists (i.e. also practice some form of agriculture). Both slimy and bitter vegetables may have biologically adaptive properties: loss of these culturally-bond traditional foods could have negative implications for health and nutrition.

, Letitia - BotanyDoc LLC Consulting Services in Plant Sciences and Nutrition
, Twila - San Carlos Apache Tribe

The reintroduction of traditional foods can encompass many techniques and disciplines. This presentation focuses on methods from workshops of the 2017 Native American Nutrition (NANC) conference and The Traditional Western Apache Diet Project. Participants of the NANC workshops described nonjudgmental recipes (ex. local berry sauces with fry bread or spam), photos of local sports heroes or Elders on informative flyers or banners and creating hands-on workshops for cooking and gathering traditional foods that includes local customs, traditional language and transportation. The Traditional Western Apache Diet Project emphasizes a cultural sense of wellness that incorporates techniques for reintroduction of traditional foods that include creating contemporary recipes, gathering plant foods and traditional hunting workshops/excursions, creating posters and books that document animals and plants, gathering nutrient data for use in school and diet programs as well as art and calendars that include gathering stories and harvest schedules emphasizing traditional names and methods.

, Samuel - Cornell University

In this presentation I describe the initiation and ongoing relationship building between PhD student, Sam Bosco, and members of the Tuscarora Nation in New York State developing multigenerational workshops that explore the significance of nut trees in Tuscarora food sovereignty - past, present, and future. As one of the most nutritionally dense plant-based foods, nuts were important components of food economies among Indigenous peoples in the Eastern Woodlands, notably the Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois Confederacy, of which the Tuscarora are a part). Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that the Haudenosaunee may have managed forests to favor such nut trees. However, contemporary food sovereignty efforts have mostly focused on corn. Building on this, nuts can play an important role in food systems within contemporary Haudenosaunee communities. The benefits and constraints of community engaged research as a transformational methodology between Indigenous nations and Settler institutions will be interrogated.

, Edelmira - Institute of Biology, National Autonomous University of Mexico
, Robert - Institute of Biology, National Autonomous University of Mexico

Given the increase of droughts in the Sierra Tarahumara of Chihuahua, Mexico, traditional techniques of food preservation are an important part of our collaborative agrobiodiversity program. In response to our Rarámuri collaborators, we are generating bilingual videos that focus on the traditional production, preparation and consumption of the principal Rarámuri foods so that new generations will be continue these practices. Today, the Rarámuri children attend boarding schools away from their families and are abandoning traditional foodways. Quelites (spontaneous edible greens in the milpa) are available during a short period of the limited cultivation cycle (3-4 months/year).  In order to have native vegetables available during the rest of the year, they are specially processed to retain their organoleptic properties and flexibility. Rarámuri elders want the younger generation to know that "if people continue to prepare their food in this way, they will not go hungry". 

, Ilisoni - School of Agriculture & Environment, Massey University, NZ

The Fijian parable “Na mate ni Civa au a vakawaletaka,” translates to “the pearl has been neglected” meaning that ‘their’ purpose has not been recognised. In this case ‘their’ refers to sweetpotato (Ipomoea batatas L.) or kumala, often referred to as the “forgotten crop” which has potential to become a significant crop for food security as well as subsistence in the South Pacific and an avenue for Climate Smart Agriculture leading rural economic development. While kumala has a strong traditional base in Fiji, its potential social, cultural and economic value is currently under-recognised across Polynesia.

Trials assessing yield values for kumala are being undertaken using the Fijian Vanua Research Framework (FVRF) an indigenous framework developed for use when researching with indigenous Fijian communities and considered as the most effective tool for indigenous development in Fiji especially in an agricultural context aligned to future food security and climate change issues.

Tait Neufeld
, Hannah - The University of Guelph

The relationship Indigenous peoples have with their unique local ecology encourages practices that perpetuate healthy communities. Populations are becoming more urban and younger. There is a need to do food systems research in community that addresses the needs of these sectors across the life course. Groups living in more populated regions of Canada have not previously been investigated as extensively, although lower incomes, high unemployment and loss of traditional food environments have been similarly found to contribute to food insecurity. Momentum is building and communities are engaged in addressing urban economic challenges, and decreased opportunities for social interactions around food. In collaboration with faculty, students and a growing urban network, gardens are being expanded to strengthen land-based relationships. Using food as a starting point for action, a community-based research program is underway to promote conversations and opportunities across geographic and social spaces to forge relationships focused on traditional foodways.


, Harvey - Fort McMurray Métis Elder
, Debra - Alberta Environment and Parks
, Tara - Willow Springs Strategic Solutions

In recent decades, Fort McMurray Métis Elders observed a decrease in the population density of freshwater mussels (known locally as clams) in the lower Athabasca region (LAR). In this paper we discuss the methodological approach of the clam research project that seeks to address questions about freshwater clam health in a locally relevant and culturally appropriate way. We use community-based participatory research to facilitate partnerships and create safe ethical spaces for Indigenous and western knowledge holders. This study demonstrates the importance of prioritizing Indigenous Knowledge to answer questions that may not have been considered by western knowledge systems, and shows how these ways of knowing can be braided to create new learnings together. We maintain that by learning together we can understand complex problems in ways that are more meaningful and insightful than they would be if Indigenous communities, government scientists, or research consultants studied them alone.


, Cassandra - Joint Secretariat

For the Inuvialuit, harvesting wildlife and plants have been essential to survival in the Canadian Arctic since time immemorial. The primary importance of harvesting is often explained to be food security.  There are many aspects of harvest and harvesting that contribute positivity to an Inuvialuit’s way of life, but these have not been captured holistically. For this project, 113 Inuvialuit participants were interviewed from the six communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Canada. Results from the project outline how time spent out on the land harvesting not only contributes to an individual’s subsistence but also to: education; culture and lifestyle; wellbeing including both mental health and physical health; and relationships with both family and community. Inuvialuit Cultural Life – Out on the Land is the first regional research project that provides a complete analysis of how harvesting is not just an activity for Inuvialuit, but a way of life.

, Terence - University of British Columbia and CIFOR

Recent research has highlighted the relative contributions of forests and tree-based systems to both dietary diversity and nutrition. Wild foods provide a significant nutritional contribution to the diets of rural dwellers, the majority of whom would be classified as some of the world’s poorest. In addition, it is known that agricultural systems in proximity of natural forest formations can often have greater productivity in terms of both yield and resilience to environmental shocks. Yet, despite the important human-forest interactions and relative degrees of dependency, increasingly, access to much of the global forest estate is regulated under the guise of biodiversity conservation. How this restricted access plays out when the “right to food” is a deeply enshrined human right has been deeply contested. This paper will outline the critical issues related to the right to food and the growing call for the annexation of land for conservation.

, Nancy - University of Victoria

Western Canadian Indigenous Peoples' diets, originally healthy, have changed dramatically since European settlement. The newcomers saw their foods as superior and set about to convert First Peoples’ diets and food production systems to align with their own. Their agricultural imperative is evident in many aspects of government laws and policies, from residential schools to the potlatch ban, to incentives for farming or ranching. The result was a drastic decline in harvesting and using traditional foods, with concomitant adoption of new foods, ultimately resulting in declines in health and well-being of many Indigenous People. The disregard for Indigenous food systems in legal structures continues today. We examine this trend in laws and policies and the inevitable results, but we also highlight the resilience of First Peoples in maintaining and reclaiming their original foods and restoring not only some of these foods but also the cultural knowledge and practices that accompany them.

, Harriet