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An archaeobotanist from the University of Oxford, Kelly Reed, has suggested that research on past agricultural systems can help us today to make agricultural farming more sustainable. By rethinking our entire food system and making use of ancient agricultural methods, more people can be fed while also ensuring that wildlife is rejuvenated and carbon emissions contributing to climate change are minimised. In the face of these emergencies, researchers suggest we should look to what worked in the past and adapt it for the future.

Although there are many instances wherein ancient agricultural practices did damage the environment they were used in, there is also evidence suggesting that some ‘past systems of growing food improved soil quality, increased crop yields and protected crops against flooding and drought’. Most of these have allowed local farms to improve crop productivity and soil fertility without the use of chemicals. For example, ‘Waru Waru’, a system commonly used between 300 BC and 1400 AD in South America, consisted of raised soil beds up to two metres high and up to six metres wide, surrounded by water channels. Nowadays, this method is regularly used by farmers, and will prove to be resilient to the increased flooding and drought expected under climate change. Additionally, the method could also be used to grow food in degraded habitats initially perceived as unsuitable for crops, thus helping to ease pressure to clear rainforest.

Another example of an ancient agricultural practice potentially beneficial presently, is that of ‘rice-fish farming’, which is mainly used in Asia. The method, which consists of adding fish to rice paddy fields, increases rice yields by up to 20% as compared to fields that only grow rice. While this rice-fish farming method is crucial for smaller communities, it is also increasingly being used by larger commercial organisations wishing to expand monoculture rice or fish farms. Rice-fish farming could not only feed more people than current monocultures, but also use less of the agriculture chemicals which pollute water and generate greenhouse gas emissions.

Applicants for Earth Sciences, as well as those planning to apply for Archaeology, can consider how ancient agricultural farming methods may be useful in tackling the imminent crises we are faced with today, including those related to climate change and world hunger.

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