• Nearly 700 million people go hungry every day.
  • But could traditional farming methods point the way to ending global hunger?
  • From argan trees in Morocco to the rice fields of the Philippines, the UN says we could learn a lot from sustainable heritage agriculture.

Eliminating hunger is one of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, but with 690 million people still going hungry, our agricultural heritage has plenty to teach us about how to feed our growing population without destroying the planet.

That’s the principle behind the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) programme which highlights ways of farming which have proven resilient in the face of political and climate change to deliver food security.

Since 2005, 62 sites in 22 countries have been designated and 15 more are under evaluation. The FAO wants to tap into generations of knowledge and experience to help global agriculture become more sustainable.

“The wealth and breadth of accumulated knowledge and experience in the management and use of resources is a globally significant treasure that needs to be promoted and conserved and, at the same time, allowed to evolve,” the FAO says.

Designated areas range from the Maasai pastoralist traditions in Kenya and Italy’s traditional Soave vineyards to floating gardens in Bangladesh, a Chinese tea farm and rice terraces in the Philippines.

image of traditional rice terraces in the Philippines
Traditional rice terraces in the Philippines.
Image: FAO

A biodiversity hotspot

A comparatively recent addition to the list is the Chtouka Aït Baha region of Morocco which was designated in 2018. The area is home to an incredibly biodiverse approach to agriculture based on growing argan nuts whose oil is used in cooking and in hair and skin cosmetics.

The trees are drought- and heat-resistant – they can withstand 50C heat – and are the foundation of a unique agricultural system that combines crops, trees and animals.

Humans are not the only fans of argan. The local goats often climb into the trees to eat the nuts and leaves.

image of goats in the argan trees of the Chtouka Aït Baha region of Morocco.
Goats scale the argan trees of the Chtouka Aït Baha region of Morocco.
Image: Pixabay/Rémi Lozach
How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

In the last 100 years, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields, and all of the world’s 17 main fishing grounds are now being fished at or above their sustainable limits.

These trends have reduced diversity in our diets, which is directly linked to diseases or health risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and malnutrition.

One initiative which is bringing a renewed focus on biological diversity is the Tropical Forest Alliance.

This global public-private partnership is working on removing deforestation from four global commodity supply chains – palm oil, beef, soy, and pulp and paper.

The Alliance includes businesses, governments, civil society, indigenous people and communities, and international organizations.

Enquire to become a member or partner of the Forum and help stop deforestation linked to supply chains.

FAO says the area is “a biodiversity hotspot”, supporting 50 species of cultivated plants in 102 local varieties which are endemic to the region. It says the trees are the pillars of an ecosystem which, as well as oil, provide cereals, firewood, meat and wool to local people.

Argan is the most expensive edible oil in the world, hardly surprising when 50kg of nuts are needed to produce just half a litre.

Crops at altitude

Half a world away in the Andean mountains of Peru, farmers use a system of agriculture that is at least 5,000 years old and perfectly adapted to the terrain and the climate. Terracing allows them to grow different crops on mountainsides, each adapted to the altitude at which it is grown.

image of traditional Andean farming
Traditional Andean farming has been practised for 5,000 years.
Image: FAO

Between 2,800 and 3,300 metres above sea level farmers grow maize, higher up between 3,300 and 3,800 metres they plant potatoes and above 3,800 metres they keep livestock and cultivate high-altitude crops like quinoa.

Over the millennia, farmers have perfected the art of using scarce water resources to maximum effect including creating channels that trap water and allow it warm during the day and “qochas” – natural rainwater pools which enable intensive agriculture at high altitudes.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose's impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

The World Economic Forum’s report, Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation, called for fundamental changes in the way food is produced globally, warning that historic productivity gains had “come at alarming environmental and health costs”.

The report said change was needed at all levels in farming, from agri-industrial operations to the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers, combining traditional skills and knowledge with new technologies like remote sensing to reduce agricultural CO2 emissions.