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Floating Gardens Offers a Sustainable Solution to Farming in Flood-Prone Regions, Study Finds

Bangladesh’s floating gardens, built to grow food during flood seasons, could offer a sustainable solution for parts of the world prone to flooding due to climate change, according to a new study.

The study suggests that floating gardens could not only help reduce food insecurity, but could also provide income for rural households in flood-prone parts of Bangladesh.

“We are focused here on adaptive change for people who are victims of climate change, but who did not cause climate change,” said Craig Jenkins, co-author of the study and professor emeritus of the academy of sociology at Ohio State University. “There is no ambiguity about it: Bangladesh did not cause the carbon problem and yet it is already experiencing the effects of climate change.”

The floating gardens of Bangladesh began hundreds of years ago. The gardens are made of native plants that float on rivers, traditionally water hyacinths, and operate almost like rafts, rising and falling with the waters. Historically, they were used to continue growing food during the rainy season when rivers filled with water.

Farmers, or their families, layer the plants about a meter deep, creating a garden version of raised beds that float on water. Then they plant vegetables inside those rafts. As raft plants decompose, they release nutrients that help feed plant plants. Those vegetable plants typically include okra, some squash, spinach, and eggplant. Sometimes they also include spices like turmeric and ginger.

Floating gardens are also used in parts of Myanmar, Cambodia, and India. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has named the floating gardens of Bangladesh as an Agricultural Heritage System of World Importance.

But as climate change has affected the volume of water in those rivers, creating extreme floods and floods, along with extreme lows and droughts, floating gardens have become a way for rural farmers to continue producing food during a climate unpredictable. Climate change increases extreme weather events and the severity of floods, as well as droughts.

The researchers, whose study was published recently in the Magazine of agriculture, food and environment—I wanted to know if floating gardens in Bangladesh could be a sustainable agricultural practice as climate change continues to cause floods and droughts, and to see if gardens provide better food security for individual households.

“They have to be able to grow specific crops that can survive on minimal soil,” said Jenkins, a research scientist and former director of the Ohio State Mershon Center for International Security Studies. “And in Bangladesh, many small farmers who normally depended on rice crops are moving away from them due to the effects of climate change and better yields from alternative crops.”

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For this study, the researchers interviewed farm families using floating gardens and found strong evidence that floating gardens provide stability, both in the amount of food available to feed rural populations and in the income of a farming family.

They found that farmers often use hybrid seeds, which must be bought back each year, to grow a wide range of vegetables in the floating gardens. Gardens are also susceptible to pests, so farmers end up spending some money on both pesticides and fertilizers. But even with those expenses, they found that the benefits outweighed the costs.

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In general, entire families work in the gardens, the researchers found: women, children and the elderly prepare seedlings and collect aquatic plants to build gardens. The men cultivate the gardens and protect them from assailants. Some families also raise fish in the waters around their floating gardens.

One farmer told the research team that he makes up to four times more money from orchards than from traditional rice fields.

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Still, the system could need improvement, the researchers found. Farmers often borrow at high interest to cover the investment costs of building the beds and supplying them with plants.

Lower-interest loans from responsible government or non-government organizations could ease that burden, they found.

Fountain: Ohio State University; Featured Image: Andre Lettau, CC license

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