Food security means that a community has stable and sufficient access to nutritious food. Climate change further threatens Indigenous communities from maintaining secure access to country foods. Indigenous food sovereignty is a means by which food security for Indigenous communities is achievable. Having measurable indicators for food sovereignty in Indigenous communities can go a long way in securing the long-term health of Indigenous peoples.

While food security focuses on protecting and distributing food and produce from existing food systems, food sovereignty emphasises having a democratic approach that engages all community members and food producers in building and sustaining local food systems. Food Secure Canada highlights seven pillars for food sovereignty:

  1. Focusing on food for people
  2. Building knowledge and skills
  3. Working with nature
  4. Valuing food providers
  5. Supporting local food systems
  6. Putting control into local initiatives
  7. Food as sacred/gift of life

Indigenous food sovereignty is action-oriented and connected to a broader social movement that considers the needs of future generations. However, determining how to gauge where progress is being made in securing the overall health of Indigenous communities through Indigenous food sovereignty is difficult to achieve. Every effort should also consider the capacity of Indigenous communities to be engaged for long-term engagement.

Indigenous food sovereignty indicators can be used to build both community food systems and improve overall community health. Through a literature review, content analysis, and Indigenous community engagement, a collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous university researchers has identified seven Indigenous food sovereignty indicators:

  1. Access to resources
  2. Production
  3. Trade
  4. Food consumption
  5. Policy
  6. Community involvement
  7. Culture

An additional twenty-five sub-indicators are identified  and are intended to be transferable to diverse Indigenous communities across differences of “cultural values, history, traditions, geography governance, beliefs, resources, capacity, and goals.”

One of the limitations of this research is that current public policy does not typically connect food sovereignty with public health priorities and so the implementation of these Indigenous food sovereignty indicators will require leadership to meet community expectations that link food security with sustainable health and wellness in Indigenous communities. Indigenous food sovereignty indicators can also be used to frame health promotion initiatives at the local community level by supporting Indigenous approaches to farming, harvesting, cooking, and language revitalization in conjunction with enhancing scientific work.

Indigenous food sovereignty projects worth considering in terms of their efforts to build food security and to heal from centuries of colonization include: Ginawaydaganuc Food Sovereignty Project; a project of the Pauquachin and T’Sou-ke First Nations of South Vancouver Island called Feasting for Change; and projects led by 28 different organizational efforts worldwide. Many of the projects combine seed saving, financing, guidance and mentoring by Elders, food preparation, and feeding programs.

Indigenous-led food sovereignty projects, combined with an application of indicators to gauge for impact, could offer a powerful means to manage and overcome Indigenous food insecurity, while promoting long-term Indigenous community health in the context of climate change.


By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Johnny McClung, Unsplash)

Seed saving is about more than food; it is also about protecting future food crops on Mother Earth and facilitating Indigenous food sovereignty around the world. Saving seeds from one harvest to the next is necessary for Indigenous communities to meet their need for certain food crops, traditional medicines, as well as other cultural and social needs.

As a highly evolved process involving different stages, seed saving can include “optimal season times for seed saving, seed-saving rotations, containers, and storage units that lasted for hundreds of years, processes that considered pollination patterns and systems, and associated cultural meaning to different stages of the seed-saving process.” The importance of seed sovereignty has increased with the commercialization of seed markets. Seed sovereignty is “[t]he farmer’s right to breed and exchange diverse open-source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants.” Seed sovereignty also aligns with “seven pillars of food sovereignty” that:

  • Focuses on food for people
  • Builds knowledge and skills
  • Works with nature
  • Values food providers
  • Localizes food systems
  • Puts control locally
  • Food is sacred.

Seed saving enables Indigenous communities to get back to their roots and to reconnect with Mother Earth. Saving seeds holds spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples. Seeds are understood as living beings from which humans are descended and with whom humans hold a reciprocal, if not symbiotic, relationship. Therefore, with seeds as their relatives, “members of an extended family,” Indigenous peoples must take care of them by preserving them for future generations.  Returning seeds to Mother Earth, their original home, is sometimes referred to as “seed rematriation.”

Seed banks and seed sanctuaries are vital repositories to protect the genetic diversity of food crops on the planet. They are intended to protect seeds for the future. There are seed sanctuaries operated by collaboratives, such as the Native American Seed Sanctuary, which involves Akwesasne, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, and until the end of May 2021, Seedshed.  Indigenous nations have also developed their own seed banks, such as the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank and the Kenhte:ke Seed Sanctuary and Learning Centre; the latter is managed by Ratinenhayén:thos in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. The most significant seed bank on the planet is the Svalgard Global Seed Vault, located in Norway, which securely stores the world’s food crop diversity. The Cherokee Nation was the first Indigenous nation to contribute seeds to the vault.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, often referred to as “The Seed Treaty,” is “a global agreement on sharing and caring for seeds.” The Seed Treaty serves to ensure that there is genetic diversity in seeds for the world’s food; however, the treaty does little to protect Indigenous knowledge about the seeds, nor does it protect against commercial exploitation. Clear documentation and agreements are needed when seeds are first collected and deposited in seed banks in order to reinforce Indigenous peoples’ seed rights.

By Leela Viswanathan


(Image Credit: Melanie Hughes, Unsplash)