Indigenous food sovereignty

By Sarah Burr

The food industry is currently undergoing a massive transformation geared towards various “superfoods” such as quinoa, chia seeds, acai berries, goji berries, maca powder, teff, Kakadu plum (gubinge) products, baobab products, and all things coconut. All of these “superfoods” were originally used by indigenous communities around the world.

cc-bush-tucker-3-melThe newfound popularity of these products in western countries is putting huge strain on production in traditional growing areas, and is even rendering staple foods, such as teff in Ethiopia, unaffordable to native consumers. In Peru and Bolivia, massively increased demand for quinoa has incentivised farmers towards bad practices such as overuse of pesticides and loss of traditional Inca farming systems such as rotational cropping. Price fluctuations due to high demand have caused cash flow problems and a tendency towards supplementing incomes through growing low nutrition crops like potato for quinoa producers in Peru, or cutting down trees for timber for coconut oil producers in Indonesia. In places recovering from conflict such as Timor Leste, the loss of capable young farmers during war has meant a loss of traditional agricultural know-how. These are problems for local food security, and for indigenous food sovereignty.

Indigenous food sovereignty refers to the ownership, intellectual property, country of origin, and sustainable production of traditional foods. For example, in the Australian context of the Kakadu plum, this means recognising the traditional owners of the fruit; preserving the traditional owners’ intellectual property rights regarding cultural and medicinal uses of the fruit; labelling and trademarking the fruit and value-added products as Australian in origin; and respecting that the fruit is largely sustainably harvested in the wild by local communities. These practices emphasise recognition of the food’s origins, ensure traditional owners can achieve financial empowerment and improved employment opportunities (including for women) through their agribusinesses, allow local communities to continue to practice traditional harvests, and restrict the operation of dodgy producers or copycats in the industry.

These food sovereignty practices already occur in the international food market. For example, in France, the Appellation d’Origine Controlee ensures that region of origin labelling, geographical indications such as terroir, production methods, and naming rights are preserved for products such as champagne and cognac, Roquefort cheese, puy lentils, and Corsican honey. This is also the reason why wine produced from champagne grapes anywhere other than the Champagne region of France must be called “sparkling wine”, and why soft cheese cultured with Penicillium roqueforti made anywhere other than the Roquefort caves must be called “blue cheese”. It makes sense to protect indigenous food sovereignty in the same way that various European countries certify their food products. It also makes sense to allow some of the poorest people in the world – indigenous peoples – to access the premium price markets many of their traditional foods attract.

A big part of supporting indigenous food sovereignty is ensuring we only buy from ethically and sustainably sourced brands. This means that the indigenous food products we purchase come from the appropriate indigenous community, and are harvested in a way that means locals can still consume their traditional foods. For international indigenous products such as quinoa and chia, this is thankfully very easy! Just look out for the Fairtrade label on the packaging – Fairtrade certification ensures better working conditions and improved terms of trade for farmers and workers in developing countries. Fairtrade certification can empower smallholders and women in farming over larger multinational farms by attributing value to the traditional production of food and the local community ownership of food production. Those extra dollars you spend in the supermarket can make a world of difference to a small producer, their family, and their community overseas.

For local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander products, however, supporting local indigenous food sovereignty can be tricky as there is no Indigenous Australian certification or labelling system currently operating in Australia. If we already know the name of the Colombian coffee grower whose beans make up our order at our local hipster café, why don’t we know the name of the community that grew our Kakadu plums, finger limes, lemon myrtle, and wattleseed? If Fairtrade applies to coffee and chocolate grown overseas, why don’t we support local Australian producers of macadamia nuts and bush tomato (kutjera)? The best way to ensure we support Indigenous Australian food sovereignty is to buy products directly from the source.

The following organisations either grow or source Indigenous Australian foods directly from the communities that produce them:

  • Outback Pride <>

From freeze dried fruits and vegetables, to bush teas, to sauces and curry powders, and products such as ready-to-eat seed and nut bars and superfood powders for smoothies, you will be suitably inspired to create your own Indigenous Australian feast while supporting the communities who have enjoyed and nurtured these foods for millennia. Maintaining local and international indigenous food sovereignty can be everyone’s business.

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