Promotion of Indigenous Foods: Culturally Appropriate or Appropriative?

Recently, there has been a push for the appreciation and protection of indigenous foods. These foods, many of which have been ‘underutilised’ and ‘undervalued’ in global agri-food systems until now, include crops such as millet, quinoa, algae, weeds and hemp, along with species such as edible insects. 

Despite their huge role in food security and household resilience in developing and rural economies, many have not been typically traded as commodities in a classical economic sense, and have often been labelled as ‘invasive’ or ‘famine foods’. Now, they are gaining traction due to their diverse nutritional portfolio, genetic diversity, environmental adaptability and efficient, low input production characteristics. From policy makers, think tanks to local entrepreneurs, indigenous foods are now pivotal to achieving sustainable and healthy global diets. 
The UN FAO defines a sustainable diet as: “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally appropriate, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources”. 

While this is an optimistic rhetoric, I am increasingly aware of the pitfalls of incorporating indigenous foods into global sustainable diets. My main question is, while cultural appropriateness is aimed for, can we appreciate and integrate indigenous foods without being culturally appropriative? 

The first point I want to make concerns knowledge and whose voice counts. One path taken to support indigenous food culture is increased education and awareness, including Slow Food’s Ark of Taste and Food Tank’s list of indigenous crops ‘promoting health and feeding the world’. 

I have also been working a lot on this side of things, doing taste education events to talk about entomophagy and its link to culture, environment and policy. My aim is not to frame insects as a universal solution, but more to explore the geography and diversity surrounding entomophagy and see how we can learn from this.

However, despite these intentions, the first questions people ask in interviews are: “So, what is your favourite insect?” and “You’re trying to make us all eat bugs?”. There is an automatic jump from raising awareness and educating people to an assumed promotion or marketing of edible insects as a mainstream food for all. It also shows how I – a white, middle class and educated woman – have become the subject rather than the insect species or ‘traditional cultures’ themselves.

This raises the question: As we are able to learn more about the benefits and diversity of traditional diets, cultures and ecologies, does it become our right as academics, development experts and ‘foodies’ to market elements of this system as discrete food products? Furthermore, do we have the right to be the face of this movement?

Six Foods: A start-up selling cricket snack products, part of Harvard Innovation Lab
Source: Six Foods Kickstarter
Myself, Charlotte and Annie being photographed for the Oxford Mail
Source: Oxford Mail 

My second point relates to the valorisation/commodification of indigenous food. 

I am all for the creation of a transnational moral economy in which indigeneity and sustainability are used to re-connect culture with nature and producer with consumer. However, when it comes to value addition, there is often a conflation of protection of traditional foods – one of the premises of a ‘sustainable diet’ – and promotion. The latter arguably prioritises technical, financial and end product value over the socio-cultural, ecological and political value. 

The branding of indigenous food as ‘novel’ or ‘alternative protein sources’, or selling them in snack bar and niche health food form, are cases in point. While brands and certifications are means to encourage consumer acceptance, especially with unknown foods such as edible insects, the product is arguably abstracted from its original context and defined simply by our own valuations of taste, diet and what makes ‘quality food’.

Furthermore, by subsuming these foods within universal health and sustainability indicators such as ‘gluten-free’ or ‘wholefoods’, they can easily be replaced by another. I have seen so many articles as of late saying that algae is the ‘new soy‘, or millet is the ‘new superfood‘. While the commodity may be replaceable or replicable, the food itself and its context should not be: there is so much diversity (nutritional, geographic, cultural, genetic…) even within one type of indigenous food, let alone between them.

Amaranth: Branded as ‘gluten free’ ‘protein rich’ heritage crop.

Exo cricket flour protein bar: ‘all natural’ ‘gluten-free’
Source: exo
A final issue is ‘disneyfication’. In other words, when complex issues such as famine, conflict and other humanitarian crises are simplified into a compelling narrative to help conjure empathy and promote aid giving. There is usually a victim, a disaster and a saviour. 

In relation to indigenous food cultures: the victim is the smallholder farmer; the disaster is globalisation and an erosion of traditional diets, agricultural practices and knowledge; and the saviour is ‘Us’, from Western ethical consumers to philanthrocapitalists and policy makers. 

This story directly links consumers and producers together in an emotive tale, but it is assumptive. For example, if we protect (and buy) the foods in global agro-food systems, there will be an adjacent protection/preservation of the traditional cultures, livelihoods and ecosystems in which the food is embedded. The point I made above about the commodification of ‘tradition’ and branding of indigenous foods suggests otherwise. 

Second, on the flip side of commodification, there is a risk of romanticising and patronising. Just because we are starting to realise the potential of indigenous foods and their cultural context, does this mean we have the right to tell smallholder producers or harvesters to preserve and appreciate them too?  Surely, if we want to be culturally appropriate, we need to recognise and respect their choice to ‘modernise’?

I will give one anecdote from my own research on millet diversity in rural Uttarakhand, India. Despite a push for preserving and promoting millet as a ‘superfood’ in urban Indian centres, and framing it as a resilient climate-friendly crop, I noticed that millet was declining in popularity in rural areas for several reasons.

First, markets were either geographically distant or, to sell millet, you had to match criteria in terms of safety, quality, quantity and uniformity. Second, many millet varieties – particularly minor millets – take a long time to de-husk and process. This is done by women, who also have to take care of a huge host of other domestic and agricultural tasks. Third, perhaps due to colonial legacy, social status was linked to consuming white foods. With ragi (finger millet) being a dark grey-black hue when ground, it was seen as ‘dirtier’ and ‘less modern’ than rice, wheat and processed meals such as Maggi noodles. 

Finally, it was simply more practical to eat other foods. This included buying wheat and rice at a subsidised rate from the Public Distribution System, or getting free dhal and rice in free school meals. Also, while millet tastes good when hot, it goes hard like a stone when cold. As people started off-farm jobs to supplement agricultural livelihoods, they would prioritise other more palatable foods that could be taken to work in nearby cities.

Women at work: the rain-fed terraces in rural Uttarakhand
De-husking a grain using traditional methods: it takes up to 20 hours of manual labour to do a whole bag.

This is just one story, and by no means does it do justice to the complex reality, but it does indicate that the ‘disneyfied’ narrative sidelines realities such as time and labour costs (particularly those falling on women), market access, conflicting policies and subsidies, and – ironically – the impact our Western legacy has had on social taste and diets. 

Linking back to the definition of ‘sustainable diets’, including the need to respect ecosystems, be culturally appropriate and make an accessible and fair food system, I think we need to realise that it is not simply about respecting and being culturally appropriate towards indigenous cultures, but respecting power relations and a legacy of interaction between ‘Western’ and ‘indigenous’ knowledge frameworks, food and agricultural systems. We cannot suddenly dismiss these in light of a new-found appreciation of indigenous food.

For me, it is all about balance: a balance between learning about indigenous food culture and not abusing our power as ‘dominant knowledge communicators’ by becoming the face of the movement ourselves; a balance between valuing indigenous foods in globalised systems and the romanticisation or ‘setting apart’ of the cultures and environments they have come from. Without this, we will continue to risk appropriating – i.e. setting apart the actors and contexts within sustainable, global food systems – rather than truly appreciating.


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