Indigenous Peoples' Food Systems 

Indigenous Peoples' food systems (IPFS) provide nourishment and healthy diets (1, 2). Understanding the underlying features of IPFS is crucial for developing locally and culturally appropriate food and nutrition interventions. Of particular importance is to take note of diverse food sources, and the cultural and social practices linked to food gathering and production, explained in the following section. For many Indigenous Peoples, food represents more than a source of nutrients; food is intrinsically connected to land, family, history and culture, as well as to social and spiritual wellbeing (3).

Studies of IPFS have provided a detailed understanding of the diversity and complexity of Indigenous Peoples' diets (1, 2, 3, 4). Some IPFS comprise hundreds of different food sources, including local crops and crop varieties, wild plants, and domestic and wild animals. Indigenous Peoples often combine food harvesting and food production, and rely on diverse food sources from a wider landscape and territory. Accordingly, any nutrition interventions should be grounded in a more holistic understanding of IPFS (3). 

For Indigenous Peoples, nature is sacred and living in balance with nature is a central value of IPFS.

Key features of Indigenous Peoples’ food systems

Management Practices 

Land, territories, and resources are managed collectively, within the family, clan, or the entire community. Customary governance systems are rooted in traditional knowledge and are intended to serve the common good of the community by regulating their rights and obligations to land, territories, resources, livelihoods, and food systems. Traditional land management and collective governance of IPFS are designed to generate food whilst preserving biodiversity. Examples include agroforestry gardens, integrated rice-fish paddy fields, shifting cultivation, and pasture management.

Knowledge and Innovation 

Indigenous Peoples' knowledge is different from science, in that it includes not only direct observation and interaction with plants, animals and ecosystems, but also a broad spectrum of cultural and spiritual knowledge and values that underpins human-environment relationships (5). This knowledge, unique to a given culture or society, emerges from the long history of interaction with their natural surroundings. Inter-generational transmission of knowledge amongst age groups and between elders sustains IPFS. Nonetheless, Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and practices are creative and experimental, and continuously innovate to meet new conditions.

Sustainability and Resilience

The resilience of IPFS comes from the diversity of their foods, lands, and territories, their knowledge of sustainable management and the sociocultural values of caring, sharing, and reciprocity. Food and seed sharing, for example, is instrumental for resilience and is based on the value of solidarity and reciprocity. Traditionally, Indigenous Peoples' practices are based on the understanding and respect of ecosystem carrying capacity to ensure the replenishment of biodiversity (5). Indigenous Peoples’ lands are also important areas for crop evolution and adaptation to climate change.

Culture and Spirituality

IPFS comprise cultural relations to food and resources. Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge about food is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, spirituality, and cosmogonies. The diverse spiritual-cultural practices highlight how these food systems are embedded within the cultural and political organisation of Indigenous Peoples. The sacred relationship with nature preserves the local environment.

See more resources on IPFS and Indigenous knowledge and science


  • 1 Kuhnlein HV, Erasmus B, Spigelski D (2009) Indigenous peoples' food systems: the many dimensions of culture, diversity and environment for nutrition and health. Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment, McGill University and FAO, Rome.
  • 2 Kuhnlein HV, Erasmus B, Spigelski D, Burlingame B (2013) Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems and Wellbeing: Interventions and Policies for Healthy Communities. Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment, McGill University and FAO, Rome.
  • 3 Kuhnlein H, et al. (2006) Indigenous peoples' food systems for health: finding interventions that work. Public Health Nutrition 9 (8): 1013-1019.
  • 4 Powell B, Thilsted SH, Ickowitz A, Termote C, Sunderland T, Herforth A (2015) Improving diets with wild and cultivated biodiversity from across the landscape. Food Security 7 (3): 535-554.
  • 5 Berkes F, Colding J, Folke C (2000) Rediscovery of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as Adaptive Management. Ecological Applications 10 (5) :1251-1262.

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