Why develop biocultural products?
Products derived from biocultural heritage, such as traditional foods and medicines, generate income for communities and provide incentives for sustaining genetic resources and traditional knowledge in the face of external pressures. Biocultural products can also improve communities’ health and nutrition.
Traditional crops are often more nutritious and resilient than modern varieties, yet communities are often discouraged from sustaining them. Instead, extension services and government subsidies often favour higher-yield modern varieties. Communities are also dissuaded from sustaining traditional health systems.
And they may face difficulties in finding markets for traditional varieties, foods and medicines, for a number of reasons, including:
the media, which promotes modern rather than traditional foods, and has a big influence over what people buy
cheaper subsidised products that are available in the market
limited capacity for processing and packaging
lack of recognition of rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge, leading to very low or no returns
seed laws and traditional medicine laws which impose 'mainstream' certification standards which are very hard to meet.
Tapping niche markets
Yet new opportunities are emerging for biocultural products due to the growth in organic, herbal medicine and health food markets. These markets, already large in the North, and are also growing in urban centres in the South.
Communities can use biocultural registers to help identify products with market potential. And with support, perhaps from an NGO intermediary, they can gain access to niche markets, for example through improved packaging and product information, by exploring and documenting nutritional content, marketing through food fairs, and identifying organic restaurants or supermarkets to supply.
‘Soft’ intellectual property rights can also help protect markets for biocultural heritage based products. Unlike patents and plant breeders’exclusive rights, soft intellectual property rights, such as collective trademarks and geographical indications, can recognise collective rights over traditional-knowledge based products and their links to territory and culture.
Example: Re-vitalising traditional foods in the Eastern Himalayas, India
In the Kalimpong area, drought-resistant millet varieties had become marginalised, despite their potential for adapting to climate change. But with improved packaging by women’s groups they have become very popular. With the help of community registers, other traditional foods with market potential are now being identified. They will be analysed for nutritional content and will benefit from market research. The plan is to promote them to urban consumers via the internet. ‘Geographical indications’ are being explored to protect farmers’ rights over these products. At the same time, the most nutritious varieties will be promoted within local communities, through local recipes, food festivals and seed fairs. Ecoserve, an NGO based in Delhi, and the Centre for Mountain Dynamics (Kalimpong), are coordinating this project in collaboration with Lepcha and Limbu farmers.
Example: Linking farmers to an organic restaurant in Guangxi, South West China.
Local chicken variety in Guangxi, SW China
The Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy has been working with Farmers’ Friend, a local NGO, to link farmers to an organic restaurant to supply traditional specialty foods. The project has set up several successful contracts between farmers from five villages and the restaurant (or the NGO intermediary). Farmers sell rice, maize, vegetables, eggs, and the Guangxi native chicken, which is famous for its distinctive taste. The restaurant only accepts landraces (ie. traditional varieties). Farmers are keen to work with the restaurant, and it helps them integrate a traditional and organic strategy into their farm management.
The niche-market restaurant builds farmers’ and consumers’ confidence