Indigenous Perspectives on Food Sovereignty

Excerpted by Jack Kittredge from research by Jane Mt. Pleasant on Native American agriculture, Enacting Food Sovereignty in Aotearoa New Zealand and Peru by Mariaelena Huambachano, The Real Seed Producers, Food Sovereignty: Turning the Global Food System Upside Down by Grain, and Transformative Agroecology Learning in Europe by Colin R. Anderson, Chris Maughan & Michel P. Pimbert

The Real Seed Producers image African women sowingThe concept of Food Sovereignty was first launched by the international peasant organization Via Campesina at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. Since then it has been discussed and developed further at many subsequent gatherings. In 2001 the ‘World Forum on Food Sovereignty’ was held in Cuba and a year later, at the NGO/CSO Forum on Food Sovereignty held alongside the second World Food Summit in Rome, the concept was further discussed and elaborated.

Food Sovereignty, according to the definition adopted at that 2002 Rome Forum

“is the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, pastoral, labor, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.”

That is quite a mouthful. The reader who has not been paying attention to this growing movement might be surprised at the breadth of rights it asserts.

It helps to understand that the concept was developed as a reaction to the increasing (mis)use of the term ‘food security’. The mainstream definition of food security, endorsed at Food Summits and other high level conferences, is a global policy objective that has evolved and diversified over time. Its primary goal, however, is to provide sufficient food of a suitable kind at the right time and place to feed the world population. As the UN World Food Programme (2007) put it, “Food security implies that food is available, accessible and affordable; thereby food security exists when adequate food is available to all people on a regular basis.”

So food security talks about everybody having enough good food to eat each day. But it doesn’t talk about where the food comes from, who produces it, how and under what conditions it has been grown. This allows food exporters, from both the global North and South, to argue that the best way for poor countries to achieve food security is to import cheap food from them, rather then trying to produce it themselves. This, as has become painfully evident, makes those countries more dependent on the international market, forces peasant farmers who can’t compete with subsidized imports off their lands, and leaves them looking to the cities for jobs that don’t exist. Food security, understood this way, just contributes to more poverty, marginalization and hunger.

This is the very vision of agriculture — one in which the billions of today’s peasant farmers have no place, and in which the global corporations control the food chain all the way from agricultural inputs and the growing of the crops, to the distribution, processing and selling of food across the world — that the concept of food sovereignty challenges.

Food Sovereignty local seeds in ZimbabweAlthough this approach has succeeded in producing large volumes of food, problems of hunger, degradation of land, unhealthy ecosystems, and lack of accessibility to food persist. The latest report of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, led by Olivier De Schutter, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, summed up the state of the current global food system:
“ Today’ s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but they are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world. (IPES-Food 2016)

Further complexity arises when food security is proclaimed as a global policy objective in the absence of an in-depth understanding of how Indigenous communities produce food and of the knowledge-based practices related to it. Presently, most efforts to improve food security remain focused on industrial and scientific agricultural approaches to feeding the world. But despite these approaches most of the world is still fed by small farmers using traditional methods. Perhaps we should better understand how and why they do it before we make judgments about how best it can be done.

The following are statements by indigenous people and those who have worked with them about their approaches to the earth, to raising food, and to belonging to communities, as well as dealing with industrial, scientific approaches to these issues.

Quechuan Allin Kawsay

In the highlands of Peru, for instance, the Quechua people have a principle called ‘Allin Kawsay’ which

“is a philosophy for the sustainable use of the natural resources available on Pachamama (Mother Earth), and managed accordingly to Andean principles of reciprocity, duality, and solidarity for the overall state of equilibrium with Pachamama, human and all living beings.”

Quechua communities also have a long tradition of autonomy and self-determination as shown in their communal governance of food production, referred to as ayllu, The tradition includes a sector of land that is operated communally alongside the chacras (farms) or small plots allotted to individual families. There is an ayllu leader chosen by all ayllu members.

Quechua farmers use the ayllu to decide collectively what they want to produce and consume. They prioritize local agricultural production by producing food first for their own family and community consumption. Then any surplus is exchanged through a bartering system with other ayllus using a communal approach. All of the Quechuans interviewed declared that they have never experienced food shortages, and they have food security guarantee mechanisms such as bartering systems and food crops such as chuño (dried potatoes) that have been domesticated to last for long periods of time, especially during the months of January and February (the rainy season).

One farmer stated

“ Allin Kawsay is an ancestral principle and this principle has been practiced since many centuries ago. It is an ideology of sustainable living because if it were not for Allin Kawsay then there would have been no systems of governance and law in our community. We all share the same interests and objectives linked through shared norms and principles with respect to humans, animals, spirits, mountains, lakes, rivers, pastures, food crops, and wild life – we are all interconnected. We live in our ayllus, and so we have full governance and control of our land, and this is how it has been done for centuries. We are the guardians of our land, and we never starved, and we are happy people.”

The failure of a harvest for Quechua farmers is more than an economic loss. It can be a source of personal distress and concern:
“How we work and nurture our land influences greatly on our food, and food security. I love my seeds and I cry when my potatoes do not grow and I know it is because my mother, Pachamama, is unwell.”

Māori people and Mauri Ora

In contrast to the Allin Kawsay philosophy in Peru, there is no consensus in New Zealand’s Māori culture about an established good living philosophy. However, when Māori participants were asked about a concept symbolizing a good life approach, they all referred to Mauri Ora:
“If you ask me for a Māori word that embodies well-being and health of our people then the closest to it would be mauri ora (life force). I am not sure if all we Māori would interpret it as a good life approach though. But for me personally mauri ora is about your well-being.”

“Ora” means energy in Māori and in complementation with Mauri (the “binding force between the physical and spiritual”) forms the Māori philosophical system of Mauri Ora.

Mauri connects life with life and is found in land, forests, waters, and the life they sustain, and complements human thoughts, intentions, and language. In regard to the concept of Mauri in the realm of ecosystems, traditionally Māori realized that shifts in Mauri of any part of the environment, for example through use, would cause changes in the Mauri of immediately related components. As a result, the whole system is eventually affected. The process used by Māori to guide resource use reflects this belief in the interrelationship of all parts of the environment.

The Māori principle of kaitakitanga (guardianship) enacts an ancestral environmental policy for the preservation of food resources specifically, the ethical principle of rāhui (restriction).

“ Rāhui is a restriction imposed on Māori land to prevent you from exhausting the food in that particular area. This is a principle I learnt when growing up with my grandparents. For example, pigeons were a common edible commodity back in those days. So if they wanted to look after that population of pigeons, for example, they could put a rahui in particular areas.” So you weren’t allowed to harvest any pigeons from that area, it was done with that purpose, rahui had that purpose.”

Food Sovereignty Farmers Adapting to climate change“Koha (reciprocity) is more than giving a gift, it encapsulates respect and respect regulates how we treat Papatūānuku (the land) sisters, brothers and all that comes from the land. I will give you an example, when mount Tarawera erupted, the people in Hauraki, Te Aroha, gifted some land for our ancestors to resettle on after the mountain erupted. A whole eight acres of it, down in Te Aroha, they just gifted that land to resettle the people who were affected by the eruption. But no one ever took it up. But the offer remained there, and I think it was only, I think our families from Te Arawa only gave it back, I think, sometime in the 1990s, late 1990s, when that land was handed back to the original owners who gifted it.

“See that’s where our understanding of reciprocity is about. See in this example they gave it out of the goodness of their heart. To help out people, so now that you don’t need it, you don’t keep it and do other things with it, you give it back. You give it back to the original owners.”

In Māori views, life is kept in balance by the principle of koha because from a Māori standpoint, reciprocal relationships and responsibilities between humans and ecosystems are imperative for the harmonious relationship between human beings and resource management ecosystems inherited and handed down through generations.

“When I go to harvest things, I talk to the plants before I cut them and I announce to them that I am going to sacrifice them. So even if people are growing food to sell, there still needs to be a process of respect in place. And you only take enough for you, and leave the rest – you are not greedy, and this is what I grew up with — hard tikanga (ethical principles) rules.”

The phrase ‘food is sacred’ for Indigenous peoples underscores the profound and respectful culture, land and resource relationships they have. For example, in the case of Māori people, the value of food is entrenched in traditional, healthy, and nutritious Māori kai (food) that symbolizes their history, culture, community, and knowledge base. Similarly, the value of food for Quechua people has an intangible value, because the notion of food holds cultural meaning — it represents the continuing presence of spiritual and cultural ancestors both human and nonhuman.

Agroecology and Indigenous farming principles

Agroecology is the study of agricultural systems from the point of view of ecological processes. It is very largely beholden to Indigenous peoples as those are the farmers who for millennia have sustained the health and vitality of their communities on the same land without exhaustion. That cannot be done without paying close attention to ecological processes.

But those insights need to be passed along to others, and successful practices need to become respected as traditions. In Indigenous societies many ways of “horizontal learning” and “diálogo de sabers” or wisdom dialogues have evolved in which participants jointly produce collective knowledge. Proponents of Food Sovereignty distinguish this approach to knowledge from that promoted in centers of industrial agriculture with their formal hierarchical learning institutions and systems of elite knowledge dispersal.

Our learning processes are horizontal and peer-to peer, based on popular education. They take place in our own training centers and territories (farmers teach farmers, fishers teach fishers, etc.), and are also intergenerational, with exchange of knowledge between youth and elders. Agroecology is developed through our own innovation, research, and crop and livestock selection and breeding. — International Forum on Agroecology (Nyéléni 2015)

Seed: the basis of Food Sovereignty

Farming started when local communities started collecting, planting and selecting seeds — modifying them to meet their needs in the process. Today’s seed also embodies centuries of knowledge about how to conserve, change, plant and guide it to fruitful expression. Seed is about culture, tradition, spirituality, cooperation and diversity. And finally, seed is about survival, about getting diverse and healthy food to eat every day.

But seed is also about control. Seeds have been turned into a global commodity in the service of industrial farming with little concern for local adaptation to the specific methods, ecosystems, and needs of family farms. We often hear that we need corporate seeds to feed the world: they are alleged to be more efficient, productive and predictable. Locally developed farmer varieties are painted as backwards, less productive and disease ridden. But in vast areas such as Africa as much as 80% of the food produced comes from homegrown farmers’ seeds.
Research in six African countries looks at farmer preference for their own traditional seed compared to modern “improved” varieties available from industrial corporations. Farmers across the six countries listed the many crops they produce and demonstrated their depth of knowledge of each: how seeds should be selected, saved and preserved, when they should be planted, and which varieties are best suited to different environmental conditions.

The reports confirmed that farmers still produce and save most of the seeds and other planting materials they need across the whole spectrum of their crops: grains such as maize, sorghum, rice, millet and teff; roots and tubers such as cassava and sweet potato; legumes such as beans, cow peas and groundnuts; and vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, okra, and lettuce. In some countries, diverse populations of root crops, plantains, bananas and enset (Ensete ventricosum, also known as false banana) are also maintained.

Saving and sharing seeds in Senegal

The exchange of local seeds is very prevalent here and accounts for 83% of the all the ways farmers obtain new seeds. But the family’s own local seed stock still provides 43% of staple rice producers and 40% of staple millet producers with their own seed for planting. A farmer trainer from Senegal speaks of their pride in local seeds and the history of these seeds within the country’s agricultural systems:
“Some farmers still keep local seeds that have been renewed for over 100 years! These farmers inherited the seeds from their grandparents. The seeds were produced in harmony with nature and they withstand the test of time.”

Good, tasty, healthy food

B&W Food Sovereignty a traditional granaryIndigenous and local seeds, managed by farmers, are preferred because they have high nutritional value compared to hybrid and other industrial seeds. Respondents from Senegal stated that the local seeds obtain the “best yields to meet family consumption needs.” In Zambia, farmers often plant hybrid seed for sale and plant indigenous seed for household consumption. A Zimbabwean farmer says: “African traditional seeds are nutritious and good for our bodies; they improve our health.” Respondents also argued that their own varieties taste better and store longer.

Communities in Tigray, Amhara and Oromia, Tebi regions in Ethiopia stated that they prefer local seeds because of their taste and how they cook. They observed that although so-called “improved” teff seed looks good, injera (fermented bread) made from this turns black after baking and is hard to digest. In contrast, the Bene local white teff is soft and the injera remains soft even after baking. All respondents concurred that: “injera made from local seeds like Aba-are (white sorghum) is sweet and soft compared to injera made from improved seeds. Local varieties such as Gedalit and Jamyo also yield good animal feed as compared with Kodem (the ‘improved’ sorghum variety).”

Nutrition and taste tie in closely with the health of communities in all countries. According to the respondents, farmers are becoming increasingly aware of how their health directly correlates with the foods they eat and the seeds they use. Different communities highlighted the importance of their locally managed seeds in addressing various health challenges. For example, locally grown seeds in Uganda and Mali yield food that can also be used for medicinal purposes. Communities in the Amuria and Hoima districts of Uganda say that millet and sesame play a critical role in replenishing the health and strength of new and lactating mothers.

Food is culture, and it is within the context of their culture and beliefs that communities recognize and define what food is to them. In some communities, local seeds are a motivator for sustaining social gatherings as well as social, cultural and community ceremonies and practices. In Ethiopia, farmers stated that certain practices within farmer-managed systems help farmers to maintain their production according “to ecological principles, which entail their sociocultural, spiritual/religious and economic life ways for many centuries. For smallholder farmers, seeds are shared elements. They have personality. Farmers respect them as sacred gifts from nature, so that their seeds cannot be held in custody/privatised or patented by individuals; rather, seeds belong to the entire community.”

Senegalese sowing rites

Farmers describe local seed in terms that show how it serves as a mobilizing force for all age and gender categories in the community. It is through the propitiatory rites that the social group expresses its communion for the advent of a favorable rainy season. An octogenarian in the village of Bounkiking explained how agricultural traditions are followed after the clearing of the fields: “There is, in the compound, a specific place reserved for women to pound the millet seeds for sowing. A girl carries the calabash containing the crushed seeds out to the field, remaining silent all the way. The head of the household deposits the calabash on the ground, and he alone is entitled to throw the first seed.”

It should be noted that the seeds are spiritually charged with incantations, holy water and plant powder that bring forth a lot of fruit. The first seed in the field is preferably sown at night: “Nocturnal sowing helps to realize the agricultural predictions,” says a farmer at Ngueye Ngueye.

In the Hal Pulaar ethnic group, the sowing of millet is undertaken on Saturdays, when the water level drops, linked to the nineteenth and twentieth days of the lunar cycle. The seeds are given to the wife, who purifies them with bovine urine before spreading them on a white loincloth. Pumpkin seeds are wrapped in cow dung before being sundried for sowing in water during a flood. They will germinate when the level of water drops.

Selection in Zimbabwe

“Seed diversity and its preservation lies largely in the hands of us women – from seed selection, to storage, to deciding which varieties to plant and how much, depending on the different weather forecasts. As women, we have expertly selected crops with a wide range of characteristics to meet various needs, from yield to disease resistance, from taste to post-harvest use, from ease of cooking to storage.” Ms. E Kaunda, Shashe, Zimbabwe

Seed selection can take place at different times and places, for example in the fields at harvest time, after the harvest before storage, and/or at sowing time. A large majority of respondents — in Zimbabwe, 95% — agreed that the best time to select basic grain crop seeds is during the harvest, when it is easy to spot the best plants from which to derive quality seed.

Seed selection skills are typically passed down from generation to generation, often from women seed savers to their daughters and granddaughters. A typical example is rapoko (finger millet) varieties that have been selected and reused for centuries in Zimbabwe.


Seeds of some crops will keep for years if carefully conserved in household stores or community seed banks. Other seeds are only kept until the next planting season. Seed storage and location is determined by the type of crop and the space available in the farmer’s home. Seeds can be stored in the kitchen or on the roof, while some farmers use their living rooms as the main storage space. Seeds collected for the benefit of the farmers’ group may be stored in a community facility.

Preserving seeds after harvest is a challenge for all farmers. Saved seeds are no exception and require special attention.

The respondents confirmed that they store their seeds more securely than other grains, protecting them against moisture, pests (insects and rodents) and diseases, so that they will germinate well and grow into healthy crops.

The Malian respondents listed several traditional local preservation methods centering around the use of local plant-based materials, including tomichina, wangaraboubel (Cassia nigricans), powder made from the leaves of Boscia senegalensis, ash or sand, leaves of kaniba, denbagnouma (a peanut variety), wouloudiologo, niokorodialani, pepper, neem leaves, djanadjarou, grape oil, prune tree ash, wild grape, and Balanites spp.

Farmers in Zimbabwe explained that they know which crop varieties and plants are not attacked by pests, and use those plants as additives to stored seeds that are susceptible to pest attack. Such “preservatives” include finger millet residues, eucalyptus leaves, mint leaves, and ash, especially from burnt maize cobs, “because the ash from the maize cob is bitter.”

Crops harvested in shells, such as ground nuts, round nuts and cowpeas, are often stored in the shell for better protection. “We just leave the Bambara nut unshelled to prevent pest attack, and shell when it’s time to plant.” In Uganda’s Amuria district, the dried bean pods are beaten in the bag containing them, then stored together with the husks.

Storage problems are also a contributory factor to the decision on whether to save or buy seeds. In Uganda, some farmers are now purchasing seeds from the market because they are unable to prevent pest and disease infestation until planting time. Farmers in Gulu district, for example, find that their beans and maize are easily ruined by weevils, while their groundnuts and sorghum have to be carefully protected against rats. Farmers may fear that their saved seeds will be destroyed before they can be planted, and ultimately decide to eat them instead. As well, when seeds are kept in the house, smallholders may be more tempted to eat them as food during times of scarcity.

Sharing Seed

“Traditional and farmer-saved seeds are not bought but exchanged among the farmers and thus are important in building stronger food sovereignty. Farmers without money can have seeds to grow and feed their families.” Zimbabwean farmer

Some Ugandan smallholders said that they borrow seeds from their neighbors or get free seeds from friends and relatives though seed exchange. The Uganda report revealed that some communities have designated seed custodians, people in the community whose job is to save seed; for instance, those who keep maize are called mawalampa. These seed keepers, often prominent farmers, will sell, exchange or share the seed with smallholders when the planting season arrives. Seeds are exchanged mostly within the local community, but they may also be exchanged with farmers from other districts, increasing the number of local varieties available. Some seeds are maintained by elderly people who specialize in growing a particular variety, but in such cases quantities are small and they may not be able to supply the whole village. The Uganda report also indicated that farmers feel very free to access seeds in their communities, with no laws hindering them from doing so.

Before the widespread introduction of hybrid seeds, it was always the practice that farmers exchanged seeds. This was more particularly the role of the women, who passed on the knowledge to their daughters or the young girls within their communities. Women selected seeds based on desired traits such as drought resistance, ease of preparation, nutritional value, and pest and disease resistance. Some seeds are specifically saved by men (e.g., for use in cultural rituals performed by men). One role played specifically by the children is to help with seed preparation; for example, they do much of the work of shelling groundnuts for keeping or planting; another is dropping the seeds of groundnuts, beans, maize, cassava, and other plants into the holes at planting time. They also help their parents with garden preparation, obtaining seed from relatives and neighbors, weeding the garden, carrying seeds, drying and packaging seeds, and chasing away birds while the plants are still in the garden and once they have been laid out to dry.

Laws and regulations that undermine farmers’ seed systems

At the international level, the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights (WTO/TRIPS), which most African countries are party to, states that members must implement some kind of intellectual property protection on plant varieties. This has been interpreted by industry as the requirement of states to join the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), which protects the rights of industrial plant breeders and restricts farmers’ rights to freely use and exchange seeds. The USA and Europe have insisted on adherence to UPOV provisions in their bilateral trade and economic partnership agreements (FTAs/EPAs) with African states. Some FTAs even require industrial patenting of seeds. These tools help to gain market advantages for the donor states’ transnational corporations, ensuring they get a good return on their investment by obliging farmers to pay for seeds – including some farm-saved seeds.

A governance conflict: plant breeders’ or farmers’ rights?

All the governments of the countries included in this study are signing up to restrictive intellectual property rights and trade agreements which promote industrial seeds and commodities. Yet at the same time, they are also parties to international agreements designed to protect agricultural biodiversity and sustain the diversity of farmers’ seeds. Such agreements include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which also recognizes Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights to resources and knowledge and has a target of zero losses of biodiversity by 2020, and the International Seed Treaty (ITPGRFA), which covers all agricultural plants and recognizes farmers’ rights – to their seeds and associated knowledge and to their right to participate in policy and decision making. These latter measures are overwhelmingly supported by African governments at treaty meetings, and the signatory governments are obligated to incorporate these agreements and any subsequent decisions of their governing bodies into domestic law. Many do so, but implementation does not necessarily follow, because resources and power are invested in other laws promoting the industrial seed system.

Fighting loss of land in Argentina

MOCASE stands for ‘Movimento Campesino de Santiago del Estero’ and is a farmers movement from the province of Santiago del Estero in Argentina. It was formed in 1990 to defend local farmers against the increasing aggression from large soybean farmers destroying their livelihoods. Asked about food sovereignty, they say:

“For MOCASE, food sovereignty is the right to produce and eat what we want. Our strategy is to strengthen our own production and consumption models based on self sufficiency, production of our own food that we produce in our gardens, and the cultivation of cotton and maize. We protect our own culture passed on from our ancestors, the animals, the chickens, the different types of goats, and the geese. Santiago del Estero is a region with low requirements, and the mountains are our only source for food.”

When farmers of MOCASE put themselves in between the bulldozers and their fields to stop large landowners from taking their land in order to plant soybean monocultures, they know that they are not only defending their livelihoods, but also that they are resisting a development model in which peasant farmers have no place whatsoever.

Fighting food imports and an industrial food system

In the words of Jose Bové, a peasant farmer leader from France:

“For the people in the South, food sovereignty means the right to protect themselves against imports. For us, it means fighting against export aid and against intensive farming. There is no contradiction there at all”.

Food sovereignty allows different movements that traditionally have been played out against each other to come together in their struggles. The peasants, the landless, the fisherfolk, the pastoralist, indigenous peoples…. are increasingly coming together and are developing a common understanding of common aims and actions. Food sovereignty has also come to the millions of city dwellers that are fighting for survival in the big cities. Production of food in family or community gardens not only brings wholesome food, that industrial agriculture is often unable to deliver, but also a level of dignity, cooperation and independence.

A simple food security approach does not support the interests of people who live from the land and who still farm their land with traditional and subsistence methods inherited from their ancestors such as Indigenous farmers, peasant, and rural communities. Clear examples of how the food security framework undermines the economic, cultural, and ecological systems of Indigenous peoples include the capitalist model of food production, widespread use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and state deregulations in favor of inexpensive food imports introduced throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

The intensification and expansion across borders of the industrial model of agriculture favoring large-scale production and often oriented toward export markets is useful in understanding the stark inequalities and power differentials within the food security model.

The decline of Māori traditional agriculture practices in the North Island of the New Zealand was largely triggered by the spread of the capitalist ideology, whereby land was acquired for commercial products such as tobacco and kauri gum. The resulting dispossession of Māori from their land and the disintegration of cultural values tightly linked to the land have threatened traditional food production and wellbeing for the Māori.

North American Indigenous vs. European farm productivity in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Iroquois maize farmers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced three to five times more grain per acre than wheat farmers in Europe. The higher productivity of Iroquois agriculture can be attributed to two factors. First, the absence of plows in the western hemisphere allowed Iroquois farmers to maintain high levels of soil organic matter, critical for grain yields. Second, maize has a higher yield potential than wheat because of its C4 photosynthetic pathway and lower protein content. Tillage alone, however, accounted for a significant portion of the yield advantage of the Iroquois farmers. When the Iroquois were removed from their territories at the end of the eighteenth century, US farmers occupied and plowed these lands. Within fifty years, maize yields in five counties of western New York dropped to less than thirty bushels per acre.

Food yields and nutrient analyses of the Three Sisters: a Haudenosaunee cropping system

Scholars have studied The Three Sisters, a traditional cropping system of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), from multiple perspectives. There has been no research examining food yields, however, defined as the quantities of energy and protein produced per unit land area, from the cropping system within Iroquoia. Now we have good estimates of food yields and other nutrient contributions from the Three Sisters, comprised of interplanted maize, bean and pumpkin. Results from field experiments in New York establish that the Three Sisters yields more energy (12.25 x 106 kcal/ha) and more protein (349 kg/ha) than any crop monoculture or mixture of monocultures that were planted to the same area. The Three Sisters supply 13.42 people/ha/yr. with energy and 15.86 people/ha/yr. with protein. Nutrient contents of the crops are further enhanced by nixtamalization, an Indigenous processing technique where maize is cooked in a high alkaline solution. This process increases calcium, protein quality, and niacin in maize.

A traditional open-pollinated white flour corn yielded from 22 to 76 bu/acre (1155 to 4127 kg/ha); the higher yields obtained in New York’s Lake Plain region with its fertile soils and long growing season. These yield estimates are further supported by eyewitness accounts that describe a highly productive agriculture practiced by Iroquoian farmers in the 16th through 18th centuries.