Biocultural diversity and food sovereignty: a case study of human-plant relations in northwestern Ethiopia

  • Morgan L. RuelleEmail author
  • Karim-Aly Kassam
  • Stephen J. Morreale
  • Zemede Asfaw
  • Alison G. Power
  • Timothy J. Fahey
Original Paper


Based on a case study in the Debark District of northwestern Ethiopia, this article investigates how biocultural diversity provides options for food sovereignty. Following a series of semi-structured interviews with 30 farming families in 28 villages, we describe farmers’ relations with plants, including 1) consumption, 2) exchange, 3) use within food system activities, 4) other benefits, and 5) negative impacts to the food system. Farmers identified 123 plants that play a role within their food system. Although the total number of useful plants is highest for non-domesticated and woody species, the average family named more domesticated and herbaceous species. Non-domesticated plants are rarely consumed as food or sold at the local market; however, they play important roles in other food system activities. We introduce a new Substitutability Index to estimate the number of plants available for specific purposes within categories of use and identify strengths and potential vulnerabilities of the Debark food system. We conclude that programs and policies to expand farmers’ relations with plant diversity, by promoting useful semi- and non-domesticated species and facilitating knowledge exchange among communities, could expand options for food sovereignty as a path toward long-term food security.


Amhara Regional State Ethnobotany Human ecology Smallholder farmers Substitutability 



We thank the farming families who contributed their Indigenous ecological knowledge to this research, including farmers from the communities of Afaf, Gotit, Dilde, Kidane Mihret, Enkoye Mesq, Derie, Derita, Yekirar, Gana Meda, Dagba, Arba Tensa, Filfilit, Mikara, Koso Mender, Barkayna, Mesqel Aura, Muchache, and Meskelko. The authors gratefully acknowledge Amanuel Berhanie, Yohannes Desalegn, and Fekadu Alem for their skill and enthusiasm as field research assistants. We express our gratitude to the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, the Ethiopian National Herbarium at Addis Ababa University, Debark City and Debark District Administrations for their support. The authors also thank the editors and four anonymous reviewers who provided constructive comments to improve the manuscript. Funding for this research was provided by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-0707428), the Food Systems and Poverty Reduction Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (NSF Award #0903371), a Richard Bradfield Research Award from Cornell University, and the Toward Sustainability Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© International Society for Plant Pathology and Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Natural ResourcesCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  3. 3.American Indian and Indigenous Studies ProgramCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Plant Biology and Biodiversity ManagementAddis Ababa UniversityAddis AbabaEthiopia

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