Towards a future with more just and inclusive food systems? Power shifting and centring indigenous knowledge systems hold the key

Towards a future with more just and inclusive food systems

Towards a future with more just and inclusive food systems? Power shifting and centring indigenous knowledge systems hold the key

In 2022, over 2.4 billion people around the world lacked access to “nutritious, safe, and sufficient food” due to various shocks that have led to rising living costs, supply chain disruptions, and economic recession.¹ As with inequalities in other sectors, women and other marginalised groups often bear the brunt of the impact, despite their vital role in food systems (women make up 36% of the total agriculture workforce yet own less than 20% of the land worldwide, and the majority of the workforce in primary processing and smallholder farming activities). 

The persistent food insecurity is likely to be made worse by the effects of climate change including the looming El Niño phenomenon this year², which will bring about devastating impacts on global food systems. The task of building more just and inclusive food systems is more urgent than ever. It entails two crucial considerations:

  1. meaningfully shifting power in a deeply unequal system and 
  2. foregrounding indigenous knowledge.

At the global level, the number of movements that foreground indigenous peoples’ voices in food and agriculture has been on the rise, such as the Indigenous Terra Madre Network. Meanwhile, several major policy developments that emerged in the past decade signal a potential new impetus for addressing pressing challenges, including SDG2 Zero Hunger in the 2030 Agenda, the $922 million earmarked fund launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to advance global nutrition, and the dedicated programme Global Hub on Indigenous Peoples Food Systems by FAO. One of the most recent examples is the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), voted in by the European Parliament in June 2023, which sets out to fill the critical legislation gap in corporate responsibility by requiring companies to ‘conduct due diligence […] and take appropriate measures to identify and address human rights impacts along their value chain.’³ In March 2023, the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) launched the Feminist Development Policy strategy in which it explicitly commits to push for both food security and food sovereignty worldwide: ‘BMZ advocates for food security and food sovereignty, better access to land and land ownership for women, and decent working conditions in global supply chains […] and for protection for local farmers, particularly in remote regions.’ The rising recognition of the term ‘food sovereignty’, a concept grounded in indigenous and decolonial feminist movements, echoes a nascent policy shift towards tackling the asymmetrical power relations at various critical junctions in food systems, with a strong focus on the agency and autonomy of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the core of food systems.

These policy developments have the potential to positively transform food systems. Yet, it remains to be seen as to who exactly will be most likely to benefit from the change, whether these benefits will be equitably distributed, and ultimately: to what extent can meaningful transformation be reached. 

While the policymakers in the Global North start to pay more attention to discussing ‘power asymmetry’ and ‘systemic causes of inequalities’, it is critical to take a step back and foster meaningful and playing-field-levelling pathways with actors in the Global South to (un)learn and co-create. A more important question is: who is in the best position to decide what is just and inclusive for whom? 

Just and inclusive food systems — by whom and for whom?

Recent analyses (by e.g. Amnesty International) have critiqued the absence of racial, gender, and intersectional justice issues in the EU’s CSDDD, arguing that it also falls short of addressing the rather limited focus in the scope of human rights as well as the focus of value chain, company, and sector.

While the German Feminist Development Policy Strategy rhetorically acknowledges the lasting impact of colonial practices and thinking that dominate the development cooperation sector, it remains unclear as to how the power imbalance between the so-called Global South and Global North as well as that between multinational corporations and those who wield less power such as Southern women smallholder farmers will be concretely tackled within the policy framework. To realise the full potential of this promising strategy, we will need to pay close attention to the subsequent, concrete, action-oriented policies developed by the BMZ to implement the strategy. 

The report “Towards an Intersectional Feminist Development Policy for Germany” published by CFFP, based on in-depth insights from five rounds of convenings with feminists primarily from the Global South, sheds light on what  a feminist development policy approach to agriculture and food systems could look like in practice. In particular, it would mean prioritising cross-learning and funding indigenous farmer-led solutions and methods, involving them in all stages of decision-making, co-developing technological solutions with indigenous women farmers, and promoting transparency and accountability in the agri-food industry and global markets. A special focus should also be placed on the restoration of land rights and the promotion of seed sovereignty, which is crucial to food sovereignty as it enables indigenous farmers to decide what is best for their own community.

From Empowering to Power-shifting

To drive meaningful and transformative change, one cannot ignore the structural power relations and factors at play, including unfairly favoured knowledge systems, that have weaved the foundation of the global food systems and development cooperation architecture as we know them today.

In many development cooperation projects with a ‘gender’ focus today, it is not unusual to spot terms such as ‘empowering’, ‘capacity building’, or ‘technical assistance.’ These words are often laden with the predominant presumption that the project target group⁴ does not possess the capacity, knowledge, or skills the project identifies as essential. This could lead to negative impact that affect the target communities, such as efficiency-oriented food technology services that might lead to more production yield in the short-term but may carry grievous ecological consequences in the long term; dubious climate-smart solutions that might help farmers cope with increasingly alarming effects of climate change but do not take account of the pre-existing practices that have sustained the communities for millennia, etc. 

However, this way of thinking and programmatic approach, which assumes a lack of capacity that necessitates the need for e.g. women or other marginalised groups to be empowered, ignores crucial aspects of agency, autonomy, and the power for self-representation. A patronising, one-sided sense of empowerment grounded in saviourism will not do much for women and other marginalised groups in the global food systems, if it ignores the fact that it is these groups themselves who know their food and nutrition needs best and how to get there.

Instead of a hierarchical, one-directional, and presumptuous notion of empowerment, as the feminist activist and scholar Srilatha Batiwala noted in her guide ‘All about power: understanding social power and power structures’, what we urgently need is perhaps to first clearly identify various sources of different kinds of power, examine how they operate so that we can upend the unequal power structures that have led to the state of food insecurity in the first place.

A case for centring indigenous knowledge systems in food systems

Those who suffer the most from food insecurity and ecological erosion in the Global South are at the forefront of defending the land, water, and biodiversity, etc. They are often custodians of millennia-old, intimate, and experiential knowledge of land, water, and other natural resources as well as regenerative agricultural practices deeply rooted in indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing around the world. For example, an intractable fungal Panama disease that heavily impacts the Global banana industry has been found virtually to bear no harm to plantations located in in Southeast Asia and Africa where indigenous farmers have been practising the craft of growing various varieties adjacent to each other, resulting in a diverse crop culture naturally resistant to the plague which mostly affects the Cavendish crop.

However, the transformative potential of these knowledge systems has often been dismissed by some development cooperation actors and multinational conglomerates as ‘esoteric’, ‘unscientific’, ‘outdated’, and ‘irrelevant’ in favour of more technical, market-oriented mechanisms such as sustainability certification schemes as well as more short-term efficient and productive techniques like monocultural cultivation which contribute significantly to the erosion of biodiversity.

A growing body of evidence in recent years including the report The False Promise of Certification’ published by the NGO Changing Markets, has shown that these certification schemes have not only failed to generate positive outcomes but are actively doing more harm than good by degrading the industry standards and enabling companies to green-wash in order to evade public accountability over its conduct.

Curiously, there has been a noticeable uptick in the use of buzzwords such as ‘decolonisation’ and ‘indigenous knowledge’ in recent years. To work towards truly just and inclusive food systems that put the needs of the most marginalised and affected communities at the forefront, we must stay hyper-vigilant that these approaches do not fall into the trap of ‘instrumentalisation’, a process that tokenises the fundamental rights of marginalised groups to ulterior agendas that co-opt the voices and knowledge of women from the ‘Global South’ to reach economic and productivity-focused objectives only. True and meaningful inclusivity means putting those whose knowledge is used at the forefront and centring their rightful representation in a way that transcends symbolic inclusion while ensuring that tangible, fair, and long-term compensations are in place, as opposed to one-sided, extractive, and exploitative practices with no tangible benefits for the affected communities.

It won’t be easy, but it’s time to radically transform our food systems.

Together, let’s break down the shackles of the development-industrial complex and overhaul our current practices and frames of thinking in the global food value chains. We must rethink the underlying power relations, whose voices, skills, and knowledge we choose to centre, and whose we have long overlooked. By doing so, we can start to untangle the complex drivers and causes of global food insecurity and build a fairer and more inclusive future for all.

“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of the earth’s beings.” ― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Author of “Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants”

This article was written by:
Liam Li (Project Manager and leading our work on International Cooperation)



  1. Data from the recently published report: The State of Food Security and Nutrition Report 2023 published by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

  2.  El Niño is a naturally occurring phenomenon characterised by the abnormal warming of sea surface temperature in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. On average, it occurs every two to seven years and can last up to 18 months. During El Niño episodes, normal patterns of tropical precipitation and atmospheric circulation are disrupted, triggering extreme climate events around the globe (Source:

  3. The new due diligence rule will apply to both 1. EU companies, including Group 1: all EU limited liability companies with 500+ employees and EUR 150 million+ in net turnover worldwide, and Group 2: other limited liability companies operating in defined high impact sectors, which do not meet both Group 1 thresholds but with 250+ employees and a net turnover of EUR 40 million+ worldwide. 2. Non-EU companies active in the EU with turnover threshold aligned with Group 1 and 2, generated in the EU. The CSDDD will be enforced at member state-level and coordinated at the EU level (See more at:
  4. The term ‘project target group’, for lack of a better term,  is used here to replace the so-called ‘project beneficiaries’ in the development cooperation context due to the patronising and savioristic nature of the term.
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