Indigenous knowledge systems have been denigrated and disregarded for generations. An over-reliance on Enlightenment-era Western doctrines has led to widespread ecological destruction and climate catastrophe.
Undoing the damaging impact of climate change requires a new approach to agriculture. As a solution, indigenous knowledge should be the linchpin in future farming efforts and can guide us toward more sustainable agriculture systems in the future.
However, utilizing indigenous agricultural knowledge isn’t just about looking backward and learning from traditional methods. It should also encourage looking to the future as well by ensuring indigenous communities have access to high-quality STEM education.
Agriculture and Climate Change
It’s no secret that worldwide agriculture contributes to ecological degradation and spiraling climate emissions. Our global food system accounts for a whopping 21 – 37% of all emissions. These emissions are largely due to transport, fertilizer, feed, and land clearing. The gases released from these emissions raise global temperatures and hasten the climate catastrophe.
The air pollution caused by fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides can undermine the health of the local population. In the same vein, our health can be additionally undermined by the amount of ammonia in the air — a compound that can be created from intensive farming. With this, we can expect more instances of acid rain and respiratory illnesses across the country.
Land clearing — a practice common in Western farming practices — also harms global biodiversity. Miles of land must be cleared to generate land-intensive food like beef, lamb, and milk. Shrinking biodiversity is bad news for humans, too, as eliminating certain animals from an area can undermine that ecosystem’s ability to self-regulate.
Globalized food networks can limit global economic equality, too. Major corporations utilize unfair supply chain practices to strong-arm local farmers into selling their land or entering unequal contracts. Farmers who work with globalized corporations are forced to farm their land intensively, too, which can lead to environmental degradation and loss of local crops. In time, this creates food deserts around the world as local people cannot afford the food being produced in their area.
Clearly, the current energy-intensive, emission-heavy approach to food production has to change. We cannot ignore the massive ecological damage that modern systems require and must explore new ways to feed a growing global population.
Our current food system is deeply unjust and produces a massive amount of waste. This is largely due to globalization, which has undermined the community’s ability to feed themselves with a varied, seasonal diet.
It’s important to recognize that indigenous peoples are not monolithic. Indigenous peoples globally have a varied approach to agriculture that is driven by technology, climate, and land use. However, indigenous farming techniques can be weaved together to form a regenerative approach to agriculture.
Regenerative indigenous agriculture refers to a holistic approach to farming, climate protection, and environmental justice. This form of farming places a premium on hardy crops, food sovereignty, and long-term resource management. In many ways, regenerative agriculture techniques like agroforestry are the solution to today’s emissions-intensive, ecologically damaging approach.
On a definitional level, agroforestry is just what it sounds like agriculture that takes place in forests. The natural biodiversity of the forest is designed to protect the crops and use minimal space. Crops like beans, legumes, and vegetables can be sewn amongst cultivated woodland. The plants chosen for agroforestry plots should be synergistic and work together to prevent soil erosion or fertilize other plants.
This system of agriculture is also self-sustainable as well. Modern farms are commonly associated with irrigation systems and dams. However, as climate change advances, more stress is being put on our global water supplies. On the other hand, agroforestry and other indigenous methods rely on natural rainfall and nearby bodies of water. Systems like “dobas” can be put in place to collect surface runoff and alleviate water demand during droughts.
However, adopting regenerative agriculture requires legislative change and social acceptance. Illegal land grabs must be punishable by law and new supply chains must be built. Far too much food flows away from the communities that grow crops to be sold in refrigerators hundreds of miles away. This must be replaced by a new system that allows farmers to feed the folks around them at a reasonable market price.
Indigenous STEM Funding
Indigenous knowledge systems are commonly associated with “tradition” and maligned as a form of mysticism. In reality, indigenous knowledge is highly technological and varies wildly from region to region. Indigenous agricultural knowledge isn’t necessarily static, either, and can change just like any other system of knowledge.
In today’s digital age, more must be done to ensure that indigenous peoples have access to STEM education, so communal agricultural knowledge can evolve too. A strong STEM education ensures indigenous peoples have the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in an increasingly digital, technological world that drives agriculture.
In the U.S., advocates for STEM education are leading the charge by rebuilding Wi-Fi infrastructure and providing Wi-Fi hotspots. Increased access to reliable internet can close the digital divide and ensure that Native American children have the opportunity to learn from the comfort of their own homes, and may even be encouraged to extend their education.
These efforts are amplified by groups like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) that strive to increase Native American representation in STEM.
Increased representation of indigenous peoples in STEM ensures that discussions about food systems include insights into indigenous agriculture knowledge. This is particularly important as agriculture and environmental scientists seek out farming approaches that actively fight against climate change.
While regenerative farming shows great promise, indigenous agricultural technology and practices should not be overlooked.
Fertilizers, transport, and feed produce huge amounts of carbon; livestock generates billions of tons of methane. Left unchecked, our food system will hasten the climate catastrophe and make life that much more difficult for vulnerable populations.
We can reduce the carbon cost of our farms by adopting more indigenous agriculture methods that focus on sustainability and renewability. These indigenous agricultural methods can help promote economic justice, too, as more crops will remain within local communities without the interference of multinational corporations. These changes won’t happen overnight but, with increased STEM representation of indigenous peoples, we can build the kind of farms that support people and the environment equally.