Remote indigenous communities across the world, from tropical forests to polar environments, have been found to be keepers of a vast treasure house of healthful, nutritious foods – many with extraordinary properties.
The findings are the key focus of the recently released book Indigenous People’s Food Systems, co-published by FAO and McGill University’s Centre for Indigenous People’s Nutrition and Environment (CINE). “This book shows the wealth of knowledge in indigenous communities, in diverse ecosystems, and the richness of their food resources,” said Barbara Burlingame, FAO Senior Nutrition Officer.
The bad news is that as wild habitats are lost to development and our lifestyles are increasingly standardizes across the globe, these native foods are quickly disappearing together with the diets that once kept indigenous peoples healthy and fit.
However, examples of remarkable indigenous diets still exist today. Inhabitants of the Karen community of Sanephong in Thailand, are still able to choose from 387 food species including 208 species of vegetables and 62 different kinds of fruit, and prepare unusual local dishes such as painted bullfrog and bush-tailed porcupine.
Diets in industrialized western countries are far more restricted in comparison, relying heavily on just four commercial crops – wheat, rice, corn, and soy – often consumed as processed foods or, via animal feed, as meat. The FAO estimates that about three-quarters of the genetic diversity once found in agricultural crops has been lost over the last century.
Traditional foods are also frequently found to contain very high levels of micronutrients. “The shift away from traditional food resources to commercial, convenience foods is often accompanied by an increase in diet-related disorders like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure”, said Burlingame.
FAO advises that more research needs to be done in order to better understand these foods’ nutritional importance, and to communicate this to indigenous peoples who take great pride in their local foods, especially when they understand how unique and beneficial they can be. A second step is to help these communities find wider markets, locally and further afield.