Humankind’s collective agricultural heritage has fed the world for thousands of years, but is now increasingly threatened by accelerating global trends, causing severe damage to the planet’s resource base. Answers to this critical situation can be found in this same agricultural heritage, a source of knowledge that can help reverse today’s negative trends.

On February 11, Slow Food held a webinar on the FAO programme for Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), as part of the Terra Madre festival, the most important international Slow Food event dedicated to good, clean and fair food. As part of a series of webinars on GIAHS, this session was dedicated to GIAHS in Europe to demonstrate the objectives and potential of this program for the sustainable development of rural areas across the world.

What is the GIAHS program?

For centuries, specific agricultural systems and landscapes have been created across the world, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders who have adapted to their local environmental constraints. Building on local knowledge and experience, these creative agricultural systems reflect the evolution of humans, the diversity of their knowledge, and their ancient relationship with nature. Yet, these traditional systems and landscapes have been endangered by the various challenges posed by the rapid changes of our globalized world.

In 2002, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) set up the GIAHS to raise national and international awareness about these unique agricultural practices and landscapes, and to help safeguard the social, cultural, economic, and environmental goods and services these provide to family farmers/producers and local communities. Through long-term support programs, the GIAHS initiative fosters the development of local farming communities and helps them generate income, while promoting sustainable practices that respect agri-food biodiversity.

As Professor Mauro Agnoletti, Director of the Laboratory for Landscape and Cultural Heritage at the University of Florence, explained during the Terra Madre webinar: “GIAHS areas represent a viable alternative to the intensification of agriculture and can help rural territories develop both in terms of agricultural production and environmental concerns”. To this date, there are 61 designated GIAHS sites around the world, helping to preserve traditional agricultural systems and the farming communities depending on them.

One of them can be found near the city of Verona in Italy, where the traditional Soave Vineyards produce one of the most famous Italian white wines, the Recioto di Soave. This agricultural system provides income for almost 3000 families, and is based on mostly manual work, with a special hydraulic system made of dry-stone walls and terraces–recently recognized as a world intangible cultural heritage from UNESCO.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh’s wetlands, farmers have developed a method to use their submerged lands for crop production: floating agriculture. These beautiful gardens enable the poorest communities to access the lands and illustrate the possibility to adapt to hard climatic conditions but also to climate change.

Slow Food Presidia Counter the Loss of Traditional Food Knowledge

GIAHS is one possible approach to recognize and preserve traditional food systems and support the small-scale farmers who work within them, but it is not the only one. A recent FAO technical note analyzed and compared the GIAHS with two other existing approaches: Geographical Indications and Slow Food Presidia.

In 1999, the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity launched the Slow Food Presidia, to support traditional local products and processing methods  at risk of extinction, along with the unique agrobiodiversity and farmer/producer knowledge that are associated with them. A Presidium forms a community that unites local farmers and/or producers for a greater influence and voice in their respective territories.

Over the years the Slow Food Presidia project has become one of the most effective instruments to put Slow Food’s politics on agriculture and biodiversity into practice. In Përmet, a small city in southern Albania, Slow Food works with many of the valley’s small-scale farmers who produce “gliko”, a traditional compote made from whole fruits, by helping them overcome obstacles laid down by industrial competitors, who sell this product at a much cheaper price.

At the other end of Europe, in northern Spain, there is a town called Salinas de Añana, which sits on an enormous salt bubble. The salt water, known as “muera”, is conveyed along wooden channels and left to sit until the water evaporates. Añana salt is protected by a Presidium, set up to support the Valle Salado de Añana Foundation, to spread awareness about the salt flats and to promote the products on the national and international market.

GIAHS sites and Slow Food Presidia share very similar values and concerns which both drive their mission to promote local and sustainable agriculture and quality food products. Sometimes, like in the case of the Añana salt, they even happen to overlap, creating promising synergies with the same objective: supporting traditional and sustainable agriculture, for all.

The Relevance of Food Heritage

GIAHS and Slow Food Presidia’s mission to safeguard the world’s agricultural and food heritage is of crucial importance, in a world where intensive agriculture and global industrial food production are disintegrating agrobiodiversity and cultural variety. In a recent policy brief by Europa Nostra and Slow Food, the authors demonstrate “the relevance of food heritage for protecting biodiversity and fighting climate change, for sustainable local development, for sustainable cultural tourism, and for social cohesion and inclusion”. They conclude that “agricultural and food heritage will be key to address today’s most complex challenges, such as Europe’s post-pandemic recovery and the fight against climate change”. Food heritage is an expression of our cultural identity and diversity, and as such, is an underestimated resource whose value needs to be highlighted and preserved.

It is high time that political leaders across the globe start acting for a different agricultural and food system, one that respects the planet, the animals, the producers and the consumers. Such sustainable transformation is possible: GIAHS and Slow Food Presidia are powerful examples of this. And as Piero Sardo, President of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity reminds us, there is no more time to lose: “To save our endangered planet we must start again from the earth, and in particular from food. We are eating our planet. We have an important and urgent job to do.”

For more information on Slow Food Presidia, visit Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity’s website!

Did you miss the webinar on GIAHS? Watch the replay! And if you want to know more about GIAHS across the world, register for our sessions on GIAHS in Africa on March 1, and in Latin America on March 15.

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