By 2050, the UN thinks there will be nearly 10 billion people on planet Earth, with 68 percent living in urban areas. Both numbers pose serious questions as to how we’ll feed the growing, urbanizing population, which is why there’s new research exploring whether traditional farming techniques could hold one answer to feeding the cities of the future. Thus far, traditions that date back to the Aztec civilization seem to be the most effective.
Called chinampas, these low-tech agricultural practices involve raised fields built on artificial islands that benefit from an ingenious surrounding irrigation system. Often fed by a network of canals and dikes, these farming islands are touted to have “better drainage, soil aeration, moisture retention during the dry season, and higher and longer-term soil fertility than in conventional outdoor production”.
They date back to the Aztec period between 1325 and 1521 and are believed to be incredibly efficient in terms of water regulation, as well as boosting biodiversity and carbon storage. Wherever they are feasible, chinampa-like systems can contribute to local, urban food production, reducing environmentally-dirty transport needs and even pesticides.
Today there are thought to be several examples of small farms applying chinampa systems across Latin America, while related raised field approaches are being tried as far afield as Indonesia and Bangladesh. In the latter case, it’s hoped to farm on artificial floating islands, held afloat by second-hand plastic containers, that could contribute to the food supply in the face of the climate crisis.
While more research is needed into how to build large-scale chinampas across the world, these traditional farming techniques could be one of the answers to the emerging challenges posed by fast urbanization.