All the information I am going to share with you in this article has been collected through researching my thesis topic, Indigenous Nutrition. Indigenous knowledge follows an oral tradition and is passed down from Elders to communities. I am not Indigenous; I am a descendant of colonial settlers. I have had the wonderful opportunity of immersing myself in Indigenous ideologies and traditions in 2019. I am still amazed at how uneducated most of us are, as Canadians, about Indigenous history and culture; I am continually learning, and I am excited to share with you some of the compelling things I have learned.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[i] has stated we have roughly 11 years to radically change our current consumption patterns to limit global warming within 1.5 °Celsius, mitigating the negative impacts on our planet. Current agricultural practices account for a third[ii] of our global emissions, and that’s where the need for sustainable diets comes in.
What is a sustainable diet, and how can it help save our planet?
Experts have a difficult time defining the broader concept of sustainability, but for the purpose of this article, we will use David Boyd’s idea that sustainability is living within the Earth’s limits[iii]. Furthermore, sustainable diets advance environmental and economic stability by encouraging the consumption of low-impact and accessible foods. Even more importantly, sustainable diets promote autonomy and help preserve tradition[iv]. Improving knowledge and access to local food sources, through the encouragement of sustainable diets, has been successful in improving fruit and vegetable intake; inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with increased risk of chronic illness such as cardiovascular problems and obesity[v]. With the world projected to reach 10 billion by the year 2050, the demand and necessity for agriculture and food sources will only increase. If our agricultural practices and food consumption habits do not shift accordingly, agriculture alone could account for the majority of our budgeted temperature increase[vi].
So, how does all of this relate to traditional Indigenous diets?
Prior to colonization in Canada, Indigenous communities were rooted in subsistence cultures, meaning that the daily nourishment of communities was obtained from resources on their traditional lands[vii]. Traditional Indigenous food systems are cyclic networks that encourage biodiversity in ways that modern food systems often fail to[viii]. Many Indigenous communities have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years; for a culture to have survived throughout history, the diet followed must be able to provide complete nutrition[ix]. Living in “Harmony with Mother Earth” is a teaching common amongst Canadian Indigenous communities; T’Sou-ke Nation is located on Vancouver Island and is the Indigenous community that I am currently working with. T’Sou-ke community members consider the impact that their actions will have on the next seven generations when making deliberate decisions, as per the Great Laws of the Iroquois Confederacy[x]. Chief Gordon Planes of T’Sou-ke Nation explains, “the whole territory used to be used in a way that was sustainable. We only took what we needed, and we need to get back to that. In order to achieve sustainability, [we need] to embrace traditional values, including [a] deep respect for Mother Earth”[xi].
Some examples of traditional food sources for the Coast-Salish communities, including T’Sou-ke Nation, are nettles, wild raspberries, salal berries, salmon and oysters. Salal berries are juicy and sweet; they were traditionally eaten raw, dried for winter, or baked in cakes by the Coast Salish Peoples. The salal leaves were used for medicinal purposes including treatment for cuts and burns, indigestion, diarrhea and respiratory diseases[xii]. Additionally, wild raspberries provide high sources of Vitamin C as well as antioxidant properties that help support the immune system. Traditionally, elders would teach children to listen to nature and observe the changes in the animals and plants to determine the ripeness of berries[xiii]. Ultimately, sustainable food systems have low environmental impacts and help provide a healthy life for present and future generations, therefore Indigenous food systems are sustainable food systems.
What can you do moving forward?
Identify food sources that are sustainable for where you live, for example, autumn in southwestern Ontario is perfect apple picking season. Go to the lands and waters near where you live and find food sources; be attentive to the environment around you. Attend your local farmer’s markets, talk to growers and educate yourself about where your food is coming from. Get involved with a local community garden; these establishments let you rent plots of land for a season if you have limited growing space on your own property. Further, taking the initiative to learn about local Indigenous history and traditions will help you understand cultural practices and give insight into traditional foods of your own area. Elders are knowledge keepers that know how to hunt and gather in a way that incorporates respect for the Earth.
Finally, talk to others about sustainable diets, share your pro-tips and encourage them to question our current food consumption behaviours; lots of people making little changes can have an enormous impact. Shifting to a more sustainable diet will not only contribute to a more self-reliant future but will benefit the mind, body and spirit.
[i] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5°C. Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
[ii] Natasha, G. (2012). One-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Nature. doi: doi:10.1038/nature.2012.11708
[iii] Boyd, D. (2004). Sustainability within a generation: A new vision for Canada. Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation.
[iv] Johnston, J., Fanzo, J., & Cogill, B. (2014). Understanding Sustainable Diets: A Descriptive Analysis of the Determinants and Processes That Influence Diets and Their Impact on Health, Food Security, and Environmental Sustainability. Advances In Nutrition, 5(4), 418-429. doi: 10.3945/an.113.005553
[v] Seguin, R., McGuirt, J., Jilcott Pitts, S., Garner, J., Hanson, K., Kolodinsky, J., & Sitaker, M. (2018). Knowledge and Experience Related to Community Supported Agriculture and Local Foods among Nutrition Educators. Journal Of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 1-13. doi: 10.1080/19320248.2018.1549520
[vi] Searchinger, T., Waite, R., Hanson, C., & Ranganathan, J. (2018). Creating a sustainable food future. World Resources Institute.
[vii] Richmond, C., & Ross, N. (2009). The determinants of First Nation and Inuit health: A critical population health approach. Health & Place, 15(2), 403-411. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2008.07.004
[viii] Kuhnlein, H., Erasmus, B., & Spigelski, D. (2009). Indigenous Peoples’ food systems. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization UN.
[ix] Kuhnlein, H. (2012). Biodiversity and sustainability of Indigenous peoples’ foods and diets (pp. 119-124). Rome: FAO.
[x] Moore, A. (2013). Power to the People: T’Sou-ke Nation’s Community Energy Solutions. Sooke, BC
[xi] Schmuker, R., & Lorimer, B. (2017). Trailblazer: T’Sou-ke First Nation Solar and Greenhouse Initiatives. KAIROS Canada. Retrieved from https://www.kairoscanada.org/trailblazer-tsou-ke-first-nation-solar-greenhouse-initiatives
[xii] Pena, D. (2013). Salal: Food, Medicine and Culture of the Coast Salish Peoples. Retrieved from http://www.goodfoodworld.com/2013/01/salal-food-medicine-and-culture-of-the-coast-salish-peoples/
[xiii] First Nations Traditional Foods Fact Sheets. (2016). Vancouver: First Nations Health Authority.
About the Author
Brianna Poirier is currently completing a Master of Science degree in Applied Human Nutrition at the University of Guelph. While completing a Bachelor’s degree in Health Studies at Queen’s University, Poirier developed an interest in food security and sustainability. Broadly, her research focus is on how local environments and food choice shape one’s health and the ways in which community-based interventions can impact these decisions. More specifically, Poirier is looking at Indigenous youth perceptions of nutrition and renewable energies in a cross-cultural setting and is grateful to be working with T’Sou-ke Nation. Personally, she is an advocate for veganism and environmental change. Upon graduation, she hopes to travel and work in the field of nutrition and sustainability.
Photo by Hannah Tait Neufeld