Keeping food histories alive

How Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems are preserving traditions

FAO’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems programme recognizes outstanding landscapes and practices that have stood the test of time, adapting to climate change, preserving biodiversity and protecting the environment while also providing food security for local populations. ©Zhongshan Luo


We often talk about the future of food, but what about its history? In our day to day lives, we might not realize that some of our staple foods have come from extraordinary agricultural traditions that are deeply rooted in our cultures and identity.

Food production has evolved and improved dramatically over time. Yet, some of the ancient ways of producing crops have a lot to teach us about protecting the environment, being sustainable and adapting to climate change. Conservation of natural resources, sustainable agriculture and agroecology are not only techniques for preserving what the earth has given us, they are also ways of conceptualizing how humans interact with nature. There are communities around the world that have always thought this way, using their land and planning their agricultural activities accordingly.

FAO’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems programme seeks to recognize and preserve these traditions that combine agriculture and heritage, sustainability and livelihoods, environmental sensitivity and adaptation to climate change. Currently, there are 50 designated sites in 20 countries around the world. Five of these have been nominated in 2018, including the first sites in Europe.

Here are three foods with fascinating histories that the programme is helping to conserve:

1. Rice

Rice is a hugely important crop for many countries in the world. It is the primary staple for more than half the world’s population, Asia being the largest rice producing and consuming region. However, in recent years, rice has also become an important staple throughout Africa. It makes sense then that such an important part of people’s diets and lives has a rich history and culture.

In China alone, there are 5 different rice production sites that FAO has recognized as important agricultural heritage systems. One of these systems are the Hani Rice Terraces. In the Yunnan province of China, the Hani people have been living and working on the land for over 1 300 years.

They have built amazing terraces, covering 70 000 hectares of land, on steep mountainsides and have done so without any water reservoirs. The Hani people utilize and manage local water resources in an innovative and efficient manner. Terraces are not only an agricultural tradition, they are a sustainable and innovative way of farming difficult landscapes.

Rice terraces exist in many countries worldwide and two other countries also have ones recognized as agricultural heritage systems: The Gudeuljang Irrigated Rice Terraces in Cheongsando, Korea  and the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Philippines.

Our foods and drinks, like rice and tea, have long histories that we may have never thought about or appreciated. Tea is about 5 000 years old whereas rice is even older at about 10 000 to 14 000 years old.
Left: Rice terraces in the southern mountainous areas of China. ©Jiae Song
Right: Traditional Hadong tea agrosystem in the Republic of Korea. ©Hadong County, the Republic of Korea

2. Tea

Tea is the second most popular drink after water. It is also one of the oldest, having been first consumed about 5 000 years ago. It requires very specific conditions to grow: a hot, moist climate, a specific amount of annual precipitation, acidic soils, a certain degree slope and elevations of no more than 2 000 metres. This means that tea can only be grown in a limited number of places in the world. It also means that it is very sensitive to changes in climate.

There are three tea production systems that FAO has designated as important agricultural heritage systems: the Pu’er Traditional Tea agrosystem in China, the Hadong Tea Agrosystem in Hwagae-myeon in Korea and the Tea-grass Integrated System in Shizuoka in Japan. The latter of these, the tea-grass system, offers a fascinating example of how maintaining biodiversity and preserving ecosystems can actually help enhance agriculture.

In Japan, the Shizuoka prefecture is the greatest tea-producing region in the country. Tea brings in about 31.9 billion YEN (approximately 298 million USD) a year and nearly 80 percent of the area’s farmers depend on tea production for their income. “Chagusaba” is a practice of maintaining grasslands around tea fields; these then supply the mulch that improves the quality of the tea. Humans have been maintaining these Chagusaba areas for more than 10 000 years. This system is the quintessential, mutually-beneficial co-dependence. The semi-natural grasslands of this area house over 300 species; yet, with modernization of society and agriculture, these grasslands have been more and more neglected and biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate.

Supporting this Chugasaba tradition means protecting the land’s biodiversity. Japan’s mountain slopes display a mosaic of Chagusaba and tea fields creating a remarkable landscape that also mitigates soil erosion and stops fertilizer run-off. The grasses also increase microbial activity in soil helping to make a natural fertilizer. The resulting tea has a distinct aroma and deep green colour. The way of processing Japanese tea in this area has become a tradition across Japan.

Being a concentrated energy source, dates once made it possible for humans to survive while crossing vast deserts or living in dry, remote places. ©West Siwa Development Project

3. Dates

Few crops are as intertwined with human history as the date palm. In fact, the date palm made it possible for humans to survive while crossing vast deserts or living in dry, remote places. Dates are a concentrated energy source, which could be easily stored and carried along on long journeys across the deserts. The date palms also created a refuge for wild species and a more amenable habitat for people by providing shade from the scorching desert sun and protection from the winds. Though modern transportation and international trade means that now, even the most remote areas generally have access to other types of foods, dates have still remained an important part of the diets and cultures of much of the Near East and North Africa region.

Designated as important agricultural heritage sites in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Al Ain and Liwa date palm oases are important areas for date palm genetic resources and for the ancient “Aflaj” irrigation systems that allowed for its production in difficult environmental conditions. The ancient Aflaj system consisted of above and below ground, man-made channels used to collect groundwater, spring water and surface water and transport it, by gravity, to a given area. Their source is a mother well, which feeds the main channel by gravity. However, now the Al Ain Aflaj systems are largely supplemented by pumped groundwater.

There are about 200 varieties of date palms in the UAE, and it is the seventh major date producing country in the world, accounting for 6 percent of the world’s total dates. Al Ain and Liwa are at the centre of the nation’s date production.

FAO recognizes these, and other oases, because they have helped to shape the landscapes of desert regions, allowing for the first settlement of communities. The date palm, both historically and currently, play an important role in the livelihoods and cultures of these countries. Other unique oases have been recognized as globally important agricultural heritage system: the cold Oases system in the Atlas mountains in Morocco, the Ghout oasis system in Algeria, the Gafsa oasis in Tunisia as well as the Siwa Oasis date production system in Egypt.

Around the world

By preserving traditional practices and cultures, we are also safeguarding biodiversity and recognizing some of the incredible sites that have persevered despite harsh conditions, changing climates and modernization. The programme recognizes traditions, cultures and ecological diversity while supporting the social and economic development that leads to stable, decent livelihoods.

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2. Zero hunger