Food systems of indigenous people

Excerpt from an unpublished review paper on Globalisation, Culture and Traditional Food Systems. This section specifically reviews research by Kuhnlein, H. V., Erasmus, B. and Spigelski, D. (eds.) Indigenous peoples’ food systems: The many dimensions of culture, diversity and environment for nutrition and health. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO. Rome.

The UN fact sheet[1] on indigenous people estimates that worldwide, there are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 different countries. These indigenous people are custodians of their unique traditions and retain the social, economic, political, and cultural behaviours that distinguish them from the prevailing societies in which they live. It is also believed that they possess invaluable knowledge on the sustainable management of their natural resources and are considered descendants of those who originally inhabited a given geographical location before the arrival of colonisers and immigrants.

For the purpose of this review, the definition of indigenous people adopted is:

Indigenous people are those who retain knowledge of the land and food resources rooted in historical continuity within their region of residence. The local food systems that they are currently using are those which are defined as “traditional food systems”, which invariably include some foods that may be used by many outside of the indigenous culture” (Kuhnlein, 2009)

The Baffin Inuit are an indigenous group located in Canada who have been influenced by “modern food-ways”. Their current food system consists of both traditional and non-traditional market food. The traditional food system is generally sustained by hunting, harvesting and sharing of food while market foods are mainly “refined carbohydrate food and drinks”. Traditional Inuit food is made up of about 79 species of shellfish, fish, birds, plants, berries, marine and land mammals which are rich in micronutrients such as vitamins A, D, C, iron and zinc and make it possible for Inuits to survive with limited access to fruits and vegetables. The nutrients in indigenous food products like narwhal, seal, caribou and beluga when consumed in the right amounts, provided all the nutrients required for all Inuit (Egeland et al., 2009).

In Peru, although the Awajun[2] indigenous food system consist about 223 species of different indigenous food, malnutrition and anaemia especial among children under the age of 3 is prevalent. This is mainly because the availability of these indigenous foods have declined over the years due to changes in farming and hunting patterns as a result of newly introduced techniques which do not encourage natural regeneration of  their food sources (Kanashiro et al., 2009). Although the Inaganos[3] have historically been known as a relatively healthy group, an encroachment on their land through colonisation and a reduction of their territory has led to a considerable reduction in their indigenous food sources, which include various species of meat, fish and plants (Correal et al., 2009).

Other indigenous groups such as the Karen in Thailand (Chotiboriboon et al., 2009), Pohnpei in the Federal states of Micronesia (Englberger et al., 2009), Ibos in Nigeria (Okeke et al., 2009) and the Ainu in Japan (Goodman et al., 2009) possess unique food systems but these groups might be prone to nutrition insecurity as a result of an increased consumption of new refined foods and decline in propagation and consumption of local foods varieties.

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, environmental factors resulting in soil and vegetation degradation has resulted in increasing dependence on sweet potato on the high-altitude plateau and the dry grasslands, with women and children being more vulnerable to reduced dietary diversity and food insecurity (Bayliss-Smith, 2009). For the Maasai of Kenya, limited access to land for grazing their cattle is as a result of the expansion of Nairobi and other cities, to the detriment of their livelihood and means of survival (Oiye et al., 2013).  Kuhnlein (2009) also identified climate change, over-exploitation of forest resources, and water shortage and pollution as some environmental factors influencing indigenous peoples’ food systems.

To promote traditional food as a means of achieving good health and nutrition security, a food and nutrition programme begun in 1983 in the Nuxalk[4] communities. This programme adopts a participatory and community-based approach to document indigenous food species. The programme also sought to determine the nutritional value of indigenous food, in order to determine if there are significant changes in the health status of indigenous groups when they are consumed and then promote these food groups as nutritious options for a health life (Turner et al., 2009).


Bayliss-Smith, T. (2009) Food Security and agricultural sustainability in the New Guinea Highlands: vulnerable people, vulnerable places. In Kuhnlein, H. V, Erasmus, B., Spigelski, D and Burlingame, B. (eds.) Indigenous peoples food systems and wellbeing: interventions and policies for healthy communities. FAO. Rome

Correal, C., Zuluaga, G., Madrigal, L., Caicedo, S. and Plotkin, M. (2009) Ingano traditional food and health: Phase 1, 2004-2005.  Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 84-108

Chotiboriboon, S., Tamachotipong, S., Sirisai, S., Dhanamitta, S., Smitasiri, S., Sappasuwan, C., Tantivatanasathien, P. and Eg-Kantrong, P. (2009) Thailand: food system and nutritional status of indigenous children in a Karen community. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 159–183

Egeland, G. M., Roberts, C. G., Kuluguqtuq, J., Kilabuk, J., Okalik, L., Soueida, R. and Kuhnlein, H, V. (2009) Back to the future: Using traditional food and knowledge to promote a healthy future in Inuit. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 9-14

Englberger, L., Lorens, A., Levendusky, A., Pedrus, P., Albert, K., Hagilmai, W., Paul, Y., Nelber, D., Moses, P., Shaeffer, S. and Gallen, M. (2009) Documentation of the traditional food system of Pohnpei. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 109-138

Goodman, I. M., Ishii, S. and Kaizawa, T. (2009) Traditional food systems of indigenous peoples: the Ainu in the Saru River Region, Japan. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 140-157

Kanashiro, C. H., Roche, M., Cerron, I. T. and Kuhnlein, H, V. (2009) Traditional food system in Awajun community in Peru. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 59-81

Kuhnlein, H. V., Mcdonald, M., Spigelski, D., Vittrekwa, E. and Erasmus, B. (2009) Gwich’in traditional food for health: Phase1. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 45-58

Okeke, E. C., Ene-Obong, H. N., Uzuegbunam, A. O., Ozioko, A., Umeh, S. I. and Chukwone, N. (2009) The Igbo traditional food system documented in four states in southern Nigeria. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 251-281

Oiye, S., Simel, O. J., Oniang’O, R. and Johns, T. (2009) The Maasai food system and food and nutrition security. Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 231-247

Turner, N. J., Harvey, T., Burgess, S. and Kuhnlein, H. V. (2009) The Nuxalk food and Nutrition program, coastal British Columbia, Canada: 1981-2006.  Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, FAO, Rome. Page 23-44


[1] Indigenous people, indigenous voices, United Nations Forum on indigenous issues:

[2] Indigenous to the tropical rain forest of the Amazon in north-east Peru  (Kanashiro, 2009)

[3] A tribe of Amerindians living in the western most Columbian Amazon primarily Caqueta (Correal et al., 2009)

[4] Pronounced ‘Noo-halk’, they are located in British Colombia (Turner et al., 2009)

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