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16 Jun 2021 | Transboundary Landscapes

Ethnic cuisines for healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems

Syed Muhammad Abubakar, Lily Shrestha & Kamal Prasad Aryal

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Bird Watching Tourism in Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve (GNNR), China. Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD.

A short video on the significance of ethnic cuisines was screened during the webinar. (Video: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya/ICIMOD)


Ethnic cuisines in the HKH reflect the region’s diverse ethnicities, traditions, and food cultures. There is inadequate research on ethnic cuisines across the region. The documentation of ethnic cuisines can help us understand how the cuisines are intrinsically linked to local production systems, dietary environments, cultures and traditions, societal bonding, food and nutrition security, and rural livelihoods and economy. Ethnic cuisines are not only important in meeting nutritional requirements but also in boosting immunity.

Ethnic foods and cuisines and local food systems bind cultures and identities and influence the environment and economy, which is why transforming food system is very crucial for delivering the SDGs. Policies need to take up a “food system” and not “farming system” perspective, especially in the mountains, where food sources are diverse and integrated.

Home gardens are an important land use system that support the revitalization of ethnic cuisines. There is a need for recognizing and supporting home gardens for household food security, local genetic resource conservation, and supplementary income generation, which could be useful for women’s financial autonomy.

The conservation of traditional knowledge on cuisines and agrobiodiversity could also benefit from youth involvement through fellowship programmes and learning pathways for promoting local food systems.

The above key takeaways – shared by Dhrupad Choudhury, Chief Scaling Operations, ICIMOD – emerged from a webinar we organized on revitalizing ethnic cuisines for improved nutrition, nature-positive food production, and equitable livelihoods, bringing together a range of stakeholders – academics, policy makers, practitioners, businesses, and communities. The webinar was organized as an independent HKH dialogue in the lead up to the UN Food Systems Summit, scheduled to take place this September, to amplify the voices of mountain communities from the HKH and to explore opportunities for future policy and programmatic engagement for the revitalization and promotion of ethnic cuisines towards healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems in the region.

The event began with the welcome remarks by our Director General, Pema Gyamtsho, who shared that rapid changes to our food systems are leading to the loss of traditional agrobiodiversity. He shared that the revitalization of ethnic cuisines will create partnerships among mountain communities, farms, and businesses. Gyamtsho added that ICIMOD remains committed to enhancing food systems through the conservation of traditional culinary practices and ensuring food security.

Stephanie Gallatova, Agribusiness Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, shared an overview of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 and the importance of gender equality and social inclusion for the sustainability of food systems. She explained how the collapse of food systems is contributing to many environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and water and energy overuse, and hoped that the UN Food Systems Summit will contribute towards addressing these issues.

Jyoti P. Tamang, Professor, Sikkim University, India, delivered the keynote presentation on how ethnic cuisines can boost the immune system. Tamang, who is also serving as ICIMOD Mountain Chair (2019–2021), spoke about the culinary diversity in the HKH, with about 1,000 ethnic fermented foods and alcoholic beverages and more than 3,000 ethnic non-fermented foods.


Panel discussions

Abid Hussain, Food Security Economist, ICIMOD, moderated two panel discussions during the webinar.

The first panel discussion included Tulsi Gurung, College of Natural Resources, Royal University of Bhutan, Bhutan; Pius Ranee, North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society, (NESFAS), India; Hassan Munir Bajwa, University of Agriculture Faisalabad, Pakistan; and Zhu Jie, Institute for Food Processing, Tibet Academy of Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Sciences (TAAAS), China. The discussion revolved around the Summit’s Action Tracks, which are designed to identify solutions that can deliver wide-reaching benefits. The experts focused on reinforcing Action Track 1 on ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all, Action Track 2 on shifting to sustainable consumption patterns, and Action Track 3 on boosting nature-positive production. The panelists identified the need for more research on the nutritional and functional benefits of ethnic cuisines; product diversification through the research and development of ethnic cuisines to encourage people to eat safe and healthy food; and innovations in home gardening (e.g. rooftop farming, pot cultures, hydroponics) for optimal household-level land use to grow organic vegetables and fruits and make ethnic cuisines.

The second panel discussion included Robin Amatya, SAARC Business Association of Home Based Workers (SABAH-Nepal), Nepal; Khaing Htwe, Department of Agriculture Research, Myanmar; and Amba Jamir, Sustainable Development Forum of Nagaland (SDFN), India. They discussed reinforcing Action Track 4 on advancing equitable livelihoods and Action Track 5 on building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stresses. During this discussion, the panelists discussed the growth of the ethnic food market through product diversification and proper branding; youth engagement and experience sharing of migrant returnees (due to the COVID-19 pandemic); diversified food production systems for improving dietary regimes and promoting agro-biodiversity; and reducing vulnerability to environmental, climatic, and market challenges. Future partnerships between the government and development partners must prioritize sustainable food supply, food safety, minimization of food waste, high-quality diet and food value chain, and revitalization of neglected and underutilized crop species. The experts agreed that there is a need from all levels (especially from policy makers) to support the growth of community-based food system initiatives and food policies that holistically consider entire food systems and their value chains.

This was followed by a Q&A session facilitated by Bandana Shakya, Agrobiodiversity Specialist, ICIMOD, where experts responded to the questions and comments of participants. There were important questions around youth engagement, the importance of animal-based foods, definitions of ethnic cuisines and their implications on climate change, and how balance can be achieved between modern and ethnic food cuisines.

Nakul Chettri, Regional Programme Manager – Transboundary Landscapes, ICIMOD, delivered the closing remarks. Chettri appealed to all to look for long-term programmatic partnerships and collaboration and reiterated that the revitalization of ethnic cuisines is an opportunity for all of us to work towards the common goal of sustainable food systems in the HKH.


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