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Turning to ancient diets to alleviate modern ills

Indigenous girl from Kondh community in eastern India
Ses ancêtres de la communauté kondh, en Inde, préféraient le millet au riz (Toby Nicholas/Survival International)

Unprecedented levels of chronic non-communicable diseases are prompting health experts and indigenous activists to highlight a need to revert to the diets of our ancestors to regain lost nutrients. This would also assist in improving society's relationship with the earth, and to restoring both human and environmental health.

“The rise of the industrial model of agriculture has contributed greatly to people being disconnected from the food on their plates,” said Sarah Somian, a nutritionist based in Nice, in France.

Nutritionists say many traditional and non-processed foods consumed by rural communities, such as millet and caribou, are nutrient-dense and offer healthy fatty acids, micronutrients, and cleansing properties widely lacking in diets popular in high- and middle-income countries.

Indigenous diets worldwide - from forest foods such as roots and tubers in regions of eastern India, to cold-water fish, caribou, and seals in northern Canada - are varied, suited to local environments, and can counter malnutrition and disease, according to experts.

“For many tribal and indigenous peoples, their food systems are complex, self-sufficient, and deliver a very broad-based, nutritionally diverse diet,” said Jo Woodman, a senior researcher and campaigner with Survival International, a UK-based indigenous advocacy organization.

But the disruption of traditional lifestyles due to environmental degradation, and the introduction of processed foods, refined fats and oils, and simple carbohydrates, contributes to worsening health in indigenous populations, and a decline in the production of nutrient-rich foodstuffs that could benefit all communities.

“Traditional food systems need to be documented so that policymakers know what is at stake by ruining an ecosystem, not only for the indigenous peoples living there, but for everyone,” Harriet Kuhnlein, the founding director of the Centre of Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment (CINE) at McGill University, Canada, told IRIN from Montreal.

Dying diets

Since the early 1960s, economic growth, urbanization, and a global population increase to more than seven billion people, have multiplied the consumption of animal-sourced foods, including meat, eggs and dairy products, which contributed 13 percent of the energy in the world's diet in 2013, according to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya. Farm-raised livestock consume up to one-third of the world's grains, the ILRI notes.

Agricultural expansion - some of it to cultivate more grains - accounts for 80 percent of the world's deforestation, says the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP).

“We have lost our primary relationship with our world around us ”


With the global population expected to rise to some nine billion by 2050, 50 percent more food must be produced to feed these prople - depending on whether there is a healthy ecosystem. “When environments are destroyed or contaminated, this affects the food they can provide,” said Kuhnlein.

Indigenous food “systems” - gathering and preparing food to maximize the nutrients an environment can provide - range from nomadic hunter-gatherers like the Aché in eastern Paraguay, the Maasai pastoralists in northern Kenya, and herding and fishing groups like the Inuit in northern Canada, to the Saami of Scandinavia and the millet-farming Kondh agriculturalists in eastern India.

But the trait these groups share is a keen knowledge of how to eat nutritiously without damaging the ecosystem. “Indigenous peoples’ food systems contain treasures of knowledge from long-evolved cultures and patterns of living in local ecosystems,” said an FAO-supported study on indigenous food systems, nutrition, and health co-authored by Kuhnlein in 2009.

Nutrient-dense foods

In recent years, grains such as quinoa, fonio and millet - long harvested by indigenous and rural communities in developing countries but increasingly overlooked by a younger, richer generation that prefers imported foods - have instead grown in popularity in developed countries.

Research, marketing and donor-funded financing have helped raise awareness of the ability of these high-protein grains to reduce cholesterol, provide micronutrients and lower the risk of diabetes.

“Because of the many health benefits of these forgotten, or until [recently] unknown foods, valuing the wisdom of indigenous cultures [and] earlier generations is vital for reducing disease and inflammation,” said Somian, the nutritionist.

The Kondh community in eastern India's Odisha state traditionally grows up to 16 varieties of millet, according to Debjeet Sarangi, the head of Living Farms, a local NGO that has worked with marginalized indigenous farmers since 2005.

But millet growing among the roughly 100,000 Kondh, who are spread over about 15,000 villages, has dropped by nearly 63 percent from around 500,000 hectares in 1975 to just over 200,000 hectares in 2008. This is because land is being converted to paddy in exchange for government-subsidized rice programmes offering polished white rice, even though refined white rice carries health risks.

“When there is so much malnutrition existing in the area, why do you replace land which has been growing nutritious food [with rice paddies]?” asked Sarangi, whose NGO reported in 2011 that 75 percent of all children under five years old in Kondh suffered from wasting (weighed too little for their age), and 55 percent were stunted (too short for their height group) - a sign of chronic malnutrition.

"Superfoods" fading

Another so-called superfood now declining in popularity is spirulina, scientifically known as Arthrospira platensis, a type of cyanobacteria that grows in ponds - a staple in many traditional food systems, such as among the Kanembu in northwestern Chad.

Medical studies have found that spirulina has the potential to boost immunity, reduce inflammation, decrease allergic reactions and provide a healthy source of protein, according to the Langone Medical Centre of New York University in the US.

“There is a deep irony in the fact that many dieticians are advocating [traditional and indigenous foods and diets] and yet [the] modern [Western] diet is what is being pushed on tribal peoples around the world, with devastating results,” said Survival International’s Woodman.

Unwise choices

“We have lost our primary relationship with our world around us,” said Dr Martin Reinhardt, an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Native American people in Michigan state in the US, who is also an assistant professor of Native American studies at Northern Michigan University (NMU).

“Humans can, and need to, reconnect with nature in such an intimate way as to depend on it for survival ”


Native American elders historically planned seven generations ahead when creating food systems, teaching each generation that it was their responsibility to ensure the survival of the seventh one, said Reinhardt. They did this by hunting and gathering only what they needed, conserving resources such as wood and water, and protecting food biodiversity.

But when native Americans were forced to assimilate, historical access to this nutritional knowledge was lost, said Reinhardt. According to the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDBI) run by US federal government's Indian Health Service (IHS), the 566 registered indigenous peoples in the US now have a rate of diabetes nine times higher than the national average.

Similarly, diabetes rates among First Nations and Inuit groups in Canada are up to five times higher than the countrywide average, according to the Canadian government's federal health department.

In Laos, northern highland minorities such as the Yawa, Htin and Khmu traditionally eat forest-based diets, including wild pigs, birds, bamboo shoots, banana flowers, and yams rich in vitamin C. But in recent decades the Laos government has moved thousands of people from the highlands to towns for economic reasons, documented in a 2012 report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

“Communities [have less access] to natural resources than before,” said Jim Chamberlain, an anthropologist and former World Bank consultant based in the capital, Vientiane, who explained that their traditional diet relies on forests and the move has led to a decline in nutritional status. Malnutrition rates in Laotian children under age five are currently among the highest in Southeast Asia.


Finding a balance

While reinstating traditional food systems is key for everyone’s health, as well as for the environment, the lack of a market to support so-called superfoods poses serious challenges, say advocates.

In northern Canada, many of the fishes that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a staple in the traditional diets of Arctic tribes, spawn and live in waters increasingly tainted with mercury, according to the Canadian government.

Deforestation worldwide, often to make way for large-scale agricultural production, curtails the nutrients that can be gathered from forests.

Much environmental destruction is a consequence of modern society's detachment from its food systems, said Reinhardt, who coordinated a UNM project called Decolonize Your Diet, which ran from 2010 to 2012 and aimed to teach people the link between food, culture, health and the environment.

“Humans can, and need to, reconnect with nature in such an intimate way as to depend on it for survival,” he said. “I hope we have not yet passed the thresholds [of what the earth can tolerate].”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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