Agriculture, Food and Beverage

Traditional farming techniques could help end global hunger, says the UN. Here’s how

image of llamas in Peru

Sustainable heritage agriculture could be an answer to the problem of global food security. Image: Unsplash/Colby Thomas

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • 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.

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“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
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How does the World Economic Forum encourage biological diversity?

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.

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

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.

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Related topics:
Agriculture, Food and BeverageDavos AgendaFood SecuritySustainable Development
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