An ‘agricultural system’ may sound a bit boring, but without them, we wouldn’t have most of the food we eat and love. Without agricultural systems, there wouldn’t be grass for cattle, wheat for bread, or tea leaves for tea. The GIAHS Initiative, part of the food and agricultural section of the United Nations, seeks to recognize and protect the most ancient and sustainable agricultural systems in the world.
How are these systems picked?
There are a handful of criteria that initiative members consider when choosing a site. These include:
- The techniques and technology used
- The traditional farming knowledge
- The food supply
- How the system fuels the livelihoods of the community
Right now, there are 52 GIAHS sites around the world. 35 of these are found in the Asia and Pacific region. China has the most at 15, with Japan coming in at a close second with 11. North America currently has none.
What are some of the most interesting GIAHS sites?
Let’s take a closer look at four agricultural systems: the floating farms of Bangladesh, the Andean method in Peru, the salt valley of Spain, and the rice terrace system of China.
Bangladesh’s floating farms
For over three centuries, farmers in the wettest parts of Bangladesh have developed and cultivated “floating farms.” The lands are submerged by water, so the people adapted to growing a huge variety of crops using floating vegetation. In the summer, veggies like okra, Indian spinach, cucumber, and more are grown. The productivity is these crops is actually ten times higher than if farmers grew them on land. These floating farms give the poorest communities access to food and the gender balance in the community becomes more even.
Andean agriculture in Peru
The GIAHS site consists of three systems on three different altitudes: the maize area is lowest, followed by potatoes, and then livestock with high-altitude crops. The farmers use ancient terraces to transform slopes into crop-growing land as well as irrigation systems and lagoons to store water. The farming work is performed communally with a crop rotation of 5-20 years, and the system has flourished for over 5,000 years. Andean agriculture is at risk from Western methods and the younger population moving on to different areas.
Spain’s salt valley
In Spain’s Basque Country, pure salt forms in an area that was covered by an ocean over 200 million years. As the salty water evaporates, the salt itself is left behind in a variety of forms, including glass-like shards. Known as Anana salt, it is famous for finishing dishes. For centuries, the precious salt was cultivated sustainably, but the valley was almost overharvested completely. In 2009, the Valle Salada de Anana Foundation saved the valley by returning to the old methods of extraction, and the FAO designated it as a GIAHS site in 2017. The “flower salt” from the valley is considered some of the best in the world.
China’s rice terraces system
China has a lot of mountains. In fact, around ⅔ of the country is considered hilly. This makes most forms of farming tricky. In ancient times, people built terraced fields throughout the hills, which held water. This allowed them to grow rice and other crops. The system not only produces a huge amount of grain, but it’s also healthy for the mountain’s ecology. The rice terrace system was designated a GIAHS site in 2018.
In today’s world, bigger is better. This often means abandoning ancient farming techniques and turning to modern ones. The mass production can have devastating impacts on the environment, including the loss of land and pollution.