How Indigenous food sovereignty can improve food security

Sustainable Bites: Food and Our Future What can we do to help make our food systems more sustainable? UBC researchers share small steps that can make a big collective impact.  

Indigenous households experience food insecurity at rates two to three times higher than non-Indigenous households in Canada. Agroecologist Dr. Jennifer Grenz, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Forestry and Faculty of Land and Food Systems, studies Indigenous food sovereignty and food systems, and how to revitalize them.  

Did you know? 

  • Kwetlal, or camas, a lily-like plant with a starchy bulb, was an important staple for Indigenous Peoples along the Salish Sea.
  • Kwetlal was cultivated in Garry oak ecosystems by W̱SÁNEĆ and Quw’utsun Peoples, until colonization nearly destroyed these unique food systems.

What does Indigenous food sovereignty mean? 

“Indigenous food sovereignty is the reclamation and revitalization of our food systems,” says Dr. Grenz, who is Nlaka’pamux of mixed ancestry, whose family comes from the Lytton First Nation. She grew up and lives on the coast of BC.  

The lands across British Columbia, Dr. Grenz explains, were purposefully shaped since time immemorial for foods, medicines and technologies by the Indigenous Peoples who lived there until colonial settlers dispossessed them of their lands, culture and traditions.  

“Indigenous food sovereignty is also about cultural resurgence: being able to access those foods and medicines again and find new ones as we face a changing climate,” said Dr. Grenz. “Heal the people, heal the land. Heal the land, heal the people. I think that’s really what food sovereignty is about.”  

Headshot of Dr. Jennifer Grenz,  Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Forestry and Faculty of Land and Food Systems
Dr. Jennifer Grenz, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Forestry and Faculty of Land and Food Systems, says land-based learning can support Indigenous food sovereignty. Photo: UBC.

How can revitalizing Indigenous food systems improve food security? 

Revitalizing Indigenous food systems can help diversify and localize food systems in ways that could buffer against food insecurity in a changing climate.  

Dr. Grenz’s research team is working alongside Indigenous communities impacted by the 2021 heat dome and wildfires to understand the effects on culturally important plants.   

“If you think of land as just vegetation and an aesthetic notion of what belongs, you’re going to have very different approaches and different outcomes to recovery than if you see that land as a food system, not just for humans, but for our animal, bird, fish and insect relations,” says Dr. Grenz. “We’re working alongside communities to develop those Indigenized processes around wildfire recovery that honour Indigenous food systems, sustainability and resiliency.” 

How can settlers support the revitalization of Indigenous food systems? 

Learn about the histories of the lands you live on and what the traditional food systems were, what they are now and what they could be, says Dr. Grenz. 

Incorporating reciprocity into your relationship with the land is also important. “Learn about the plants of those lands and find a way to invite them into your life. How can you take care of them, nurture them and steward them?” asks Dr. Grenz.  

One way might be to Indigenize your own back yard or community garden. Or learn about Indigenous food system protocols and the concept of “Honourable Harvest.” 

How can land-based learning support Indigenous food sovereignty?

Land-based learning is an opportunity to get students and people out on the land—and start taking steps to give back while they are learning.  
At UBC Farm, Dr. Grenz and students are starting two different Indigenous food systems to work as part of the agrarian food system that exists there—“essentially bridging two food systems, decolonizing and Indigenizing our understandings of what foods are and how those two systems work together to benefit both.”  
In one, they are establishing a Garry oak ecosystem and growing camas, which is a traditional food system of the W̱SÁNEĆ  and Quw’utsun Peoples. Another type of forest garden, similar to other Coast Salish, Tsimshian or Haida food systems, will see the forest shaped by different plants like beaked hazelnut, elderberry, salmonberry and thimbleberry.  

The students will be able to practice how to care for plants ordinarily thought of as forest plants, and “learn how to reclaim traditional land stewardship practices to actually increase the production of those berries.”  

This article was published on March 8, 2024. Feel free to share the video and republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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