News & Views

From Homogenous to Indigenous: Investing in Native Food Systems for a Resilient Future

Nongjrong is an island in the sky, perched on a mountaintop surrounded by two wild rivers and paddies of red rice in lush valleys far below. Cascading down the steep slopes from the village is an edible landscape, artfully etched into the rolling terrain, bursting with nutritious foods and wild medicines. These are the East Khasi Hills of Northeast India, ancestral lands of the Khasi peoples and the site of the second Indigenous Terra Madre conference, which recently took place in nearby Shillong.

About seventy percent of the world’s population is fed by Indigenous and small-scale farmers like the Khasi who produce a nutrient-rich basket of foods primarily for local consumption. The other thirty percent of humanity feeds from the industrial food chain which, according to Patrick Mooney of ETC Group, costs consumers and taxpayers globally around US$9 trillion per year in subsidies, waste and damaging externalities such as pollution and obesity. These are radically different ways of feeding the world, and it’s within this context that Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM) was conceived; to counter the dominant development narrative that prioritizes high-input export monocultures and cheap processed foods while stigmatizing ‘peasant’ farmers and their traditional foods. Born out of the Slow Food movement, ITM is a global platform for proponents of Indigenous and locally-based, agroecological food systems; a growing space for farmers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, chefs and policymakers to work together to achieve cross-cutting impact on biodiversity, livelihoods, health, climate, conservation, culture and of course, the culinary arts.

Security in Diversity

“Food is the center of everything, food is our cultural identity, it’s who we are, and me as a chef it’s my role to bring these foods back and to show people how to do it again,” Sean Sherman (Ogalala Lakota), known as the Sioux Chef, told hundreds of delegates gathered on the campus of Shillong University at ITM 2015. Chefs play an integral role in revitalizing and creating markets for agrobiodiversity, and Chef Sherman spoke about how his ancestors on the plains of the U.S. had a thriving and diverse food system for 2,000 years before colonization, and how that diversity has disappeared into vast monocultures of wheat and corn engineered by the green revolution. He is part of a blossoming Native foods renaissance in the U.S, and Mr. Sherman’s particular focus aligns with the work of Native communities across the country who are working to bring back the “pre-reservation” Indigenous knowledge of wild and traditionally cultivated foods, flavors and culinary techniques.

The Indian state of Meghalaya, where ITM 2015 was held, is home to the matrilineal Khasi people, whose women contribute greatly to nutrition security, biodiversity maintenance and overall peace within the society. Above are farmers from the village of Nongjrong taking a break during the important harvest of red rice. From left to right: Bamonlang Nongrum, Theimon Nongrum, Amanda Shadap, Ibiang Nongrum, Jubab Myrboh

Born out of the Slow Food movement, Indigenous Terra Madre is a space by and for Indigenous Peoples to link, exchange and expand networks and to interact with researchers, chefs, policy makers, UN officials and peers. Delegates to ITM 2015 came from 52 countries including these two from Kenya.

“Bringing Indigenous foods into the forefront, we’re spurring economic development, creating Indigenous businesses, we’re creating huge economic doors for Indigenous food purveyors and growers. It’s bringing health back to our communities. We really, really need that the most.”

Talented chefs like Sean Sherman are blending local and historical ingredients with culinary creativity to take Indigenous cuisine to a new level, like a lean bison hanger steak with dried wild oregano, accompanied by a corn and dandelion puree, tart chokecherries, wild purslane and garden-fresh squash blossoms. This is the new peasant food: hyper-local, ecological and insanely good. And while chefs of all kinds are busy creating beautiful dishes with Indigenous food varieties — critical for in-situ conservation of agrobiodiversity — researchers and farmers at ITM are amplifying agroecological techniques that mesh sustainably within the local landscape and cultural context; highlighting Indigenous-style cultivation systems as the right path to food sovereignty and nutritional security.

We Are the Soil

Descending the steep footpath from Nongjrong Village to the paddies, after fueling up with fresh oranges and guava plucked from trees, we pass a chaotic tangle of crop species spilling out of a garden patch. This is managed chaos, in fact, the mixing of sweet potato, beans and cassava here forms a magical agricultural triumvirate known widely as the three sisters, a relationship well-known to Native farmers throughout the Americas in the form of corn, beans and squash.

“The relationship between these plants is critical to both the soil and the health of the plants,” says Dr. Daphne Miller at an ITM plenary entitled Advancing Local Food Systems for the Future We Want. “One of them gives nitrogen, one of them takes nitrogen, one of them gives potassium and one of them takes potassium, one of them acts like a stalk so that the other can grow up it.”

In the Tarahumara communities of Northwest Mexico, says Dr. Miller, the three sisters create a sustainable farming trio that mix together in a delicious dish, delivering a complement of important nutrients to humans that helps to keep diabetes at bay. Beans lower the glycemic index of the corn tortillas so that when eaten together they release less sugar into the bloodstream. It’s an agroecological innovation that helps to maintain living soils that — in turn — make humans healthier.

“We are starting to understand that there is a direct relationship between our own internal bacteria and the bacteria in the soil,” said Dr. Miller, a practicing family physician and author. “You need this diversity to pass on nutrients to the plants so that we can receive these nutrients. It turns out that this diversity of microbes interacts with the microbes inside our own bodies; our own microbiome which is very vital to maintaining our immune system and keeping it healthy.”

“When we lose biodiversity, we lose health.”

Through its methods, Western science is confirming a maxim long held in Indigenous knowledge systems that ‘food is medicine’. Here, Rebeca (right), a group leader of the Community Health Promoters of Samachike in the Sierra Tarahumara of Northwest Mexico, describes a small portion of the group’s potent medicinal inventory that is collected in their landscapes.

Lowasa Nyeusi, a young Turkana man, tends to his family's goats outside of Loiyangalani.

Lowasa Nyeusi, a young Turkana man, tends to his family’s goats outside of Loiyangalani, Kenya. In the vast, arid landscapes of Northern Kenya pastoralism has proven to be the most flexible and viable form of land use. Almost all of the meat consumed in Kenya comes from the pastoralist rangelands. Acknowledging the importance of pastoralism to Indigenous livelihoods and food security is important to The Christensen Fund and the ITM network

We also lose flavor, ecosystem integrity and livelihoods when we lose biodiversity, so in addition to in-situ curating of Indigenous crops many ITM delegates are engaged with the explosion of community seed banks around the world for ex-situ conservation of agrobiodiversity, further strengthening the resilience of local food systems. Advancing Indigenous Food Sovereignty is at the core of ITM as a platform for Indigenous food producers to interact with their peers and to engage with policy makers, scientists, UN agencies and international institutions. Delegates propose to safeguard and revitalize traditional food and knowledge systems in order to preserve biodiversity; increase human and soil health; and build sustainable market and livelihood connections, all while celebrating and enjoying a bounty of delicious and nutritious food. With the majority of humanity engaged in agriculture and all of Earth’s systems touched by it, no less than the future of the planet is at stake.

No Woman, No Krai

When you bite into a millet-sesame ball stuck together with wild honey the lush flavors and rich oils saturate your tongue and radiate through your chest. This is true power food, one of the treats on offer at the 2015 ITM food festival. Millets have been an important food staple throughout human history, particularly in Asia and Africa, though they are now relegated to the category of neglected and underutilized species, sometimes referred to as ‘orphan crops’ because of the lack of attention paid to them by mainstream development and research programs.

Back in 2010, when Kong Bibiana of Nongtraw village in Meghalaya told The Indigenous Partnership — one of the key organizers of ITM — that she was eager to revive millet cultivation in her community, they had no idea how to respond to her.

“We started a dialogue with several other communities,” says Phrang Roy (Khasi), Coordinator of the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity. “We used [Christensen Fund] funds to support Insightshare to teach her community participatory video which was then used by her to spread the importance of millet.”

Within one year about 16 villages, says Mr. Roy, opted to go back to millet, known as krai in the Khasi language. Fast forward to ITM 2015 and krai is back in full force, with hundreds of farmers in the region again producing the hearty, drought-tolerant grain. The BBC even caught wind of this millet revitalization and produced a feature radio piece about it and ITM. A more widely-known example of an ‘orphan crop’ that got famous is quinoa, the native Andean staple that was once scoffed at by outside agricultural technicians and is now coveted by San Francisco foodies who will spend US$18 for a bowl of it. Cases like this are increasing as Indigenous and local communities assert control over their productive lands and reconnect with heirloom varieties like the ‘miracle crop’ of Ethiopia, enset. The fact that professionals from IFAD, FAO and other multilateral development institutions attended the 2nd ITM speaks to the transformative power of food sovereignty as a policy priority, one that aligns nutrition, biodiversity, rights and livelihoods.


Humanity has Indigenous Peoples to thank for virtually all of the agrobiodiversity on the planet. While nearly 70% of crop diversity has been lost since the onset of industrial times, the majority of the remaining genetic diversity of edible crops is maintained in-situ by Indigenous peoples and local communities, and increasingly ex-situ in an expanding network of community seed banks. Here, a tiny sampling of Northeast India’s agrobiodiversity

A hearty and delicious dish of beans, chili and moringa leaves at an Indigenous foods cafe in Konso, Ethiopia. The moringa trees planted by the Konso people provide on-farm shade for coffee and other crops, while providing nutritious, edible leaves year around. The Konso say that “if there is no moringa, there is no life”, and it is thought that Konso migrants plant Moringa stenopetala wherever they go to protect themselves against famine. Moringa has joined Slow Food’s Ark of Taste which supports agricultural heritage from around the world

Of course, bringing back nutritious underutilized food crops is only one of the legs on the table. Other key changes to the agricultural development paradigm that ITM delegates would like to see include recognizing the contributions of pastoralists to food security in arid lands; building awareness of the positive aspects of shifting cultivation and the development of a pollinators network. Getting these priorities onto the agendas of the world’s policymakers and funders is key to changing how people think about the future of food and agriculture.

“The ITM network is trying to go from monocultures to polycultures,” says Kyra Busch, Program Officer for Agrobiodiversity and Resilient Biocultural Landscapes for The Christensen Fund. “When you start putting scientists in a millet field and farmers in a plenary session we can start to break down barriers and challenge peoples’ thinking. ITM is going outside of an NGO model, outside of a typical conference model, to bring unlikely allies together to work on shifting our food systems onto a sustainable path.”

Development vs. Self-Determination

Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development — Article 4, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

From colonization through the green revolution to a multitude of contemporary development schemes, Indigenous farmers and food systems have endured centuries of ideas brought by outsiders who have little understanding of the complex value Traditional Knowledge.

Then on November 7th, 2015, in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, hundreds of Indigenous food producers from 52 countries looked around to see that roles are reversing; that 70,000 people attending the ITM closing food festival consider them to be agricultural and culinary experts, in fact, and that a growing group of allies and compatriots are seeking Indigenous knowledge to reverse the damage done by climate change and unsustainable development while preserving lands and waters for future generations. This was the pinnacle of Indigenous Terra Madre 2015, a cultural happening that exceeded the expectations of both organizers and delegates and that owes a lot to the advancements in Indigenous rights that have occurred over the last several decades.

Putting food into a rights framework, as many Indigenous leaders and their allies have been working to do for decades, has set in motion major global processes which are coalescing into widespread backing for Native food and agriculture systems. Essential to this shift is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a legal document adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 which the UN describes as “a significant tool towards eliminating human rights violations against the planet’s 370 million indigenous people and assisting them in combating discrimination and marginalization.”

An estimated 70,000 people attended ITM 2015’s closing food festival, which put Indigenous agrobiodiversity, food and knowledge systems at its center. Food and culture festivals are a key part of Christensen’s grantmaking globally, giving Indigenous and local communities an effective platform to express themselves to their peers and to the dominant society

Subsets of those 370 million Indigenous People – who steward 80% of Earth’s remaining terrestrial biodiversity, according to the World Bank – are asserting their rights as enshrined in UNDRIP and promoting their own definitions of development, creating their own planes de vida (life plans). Increasingly, even governments are embracing development alternatives, such as in the South Pacific, where leaders are supporting the Melanesian Indicators of Wellbeing project; and in Central Asia, where the ‘jyrgalizm’ movement is prioritizing happiness over economic development in a way similar to Bhutan’s much-lauded system of Gross National Happiness.

As an organization that backs Indigenous and local communities through both grants and program related investments, The Christensen Fund sees the biggest opportunities for impact in projects that link Indigenous rights and agriculture to global and local movements that are redefining how humanity interacts with food. Luckily, we are not alone, and many other funders are joining the fight both independently and via donor collaboratives such as the Agroecology Fund and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

“For more than 25 years now, Slow Food has sought to preserve agricultural and food biodiversity as a tool for ensuring a future for our planet and humanity as a whole,” said Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International. “It is necessary to point out, though, that it would be senseless to defend biodiversity without also defending the cultural diversity of peoples and their right to govern their own territories.”

“The right of peoples to have control over their land, to grow food, to hunt, fish and gather according to their own needs and decisions, is inalienable.”