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Lost Wonders of a Waterless Wetland

When you picture a swamp, food is probably the last thing that springs to mind. But wetlands play a surprising role in agriculture. Join us as we dive into the murky depths of peatlands and explore how they fit into our food system.

Wetlands form a mosaic of ecosystems stretching across our planet. From salty marshes that flood with the ebb and flow of tides to murky freshwater swamps, these unique landscapes are teeming with life and provide vital ecosystem services. But our collective lore doesn’t always portray wetlands as the spectacular places they are.

Our stories, echoing across cultures and continents, weave a rich tapestry of wetland mythology. The Australian Aboriginal tales tell of the Bunyip, a creature believed to lurk in the depths of swamps and billabongs. English fables describe the Will-o'-the-Wisp, famed for leading travellers astray in marshes. Then you have the Slavic legends of the Bolotnik, a mischievous yet protective swamp demon, or more recent pop culture manifestations like DC’s enigmatic Swamp Thing. These narratives share a common thread. They cast wetlands as mysterious domains, fraught with dangers that await silently beneath the tranquil water, darting between the reeds.

Tales of wetland spirits and demons are common in folklore. From left to right: The Vodyanoy of Slavic Europe is known to break dams and kidnap farmers when angered; Näkki, a Nordic shape-shifting water spirit capturing those who lean too far over the wate

Tales of wetland spirits and demons are common in folklore. From left to right: The Vodyanoy of Slavic Europe is known to break dams and kidnap farmers when angered; Näkki, a Nordic shape-shifting water spirit captures those who lean too far over the water's edge; and Kelpie, a Celtic water horse known to lure people beneath the water to their doom. (Illustrations by Cait Mack)

Despite their presence in our cultural narratives, our understanding of the real-world significance of wetlands remains largely superficial. Influenced perhaps by pervasive tales of danger and mystery, the draining of fertile swamps to make way for agriculture has been seen as an emblem of progress, a testament to our ability to tame the wild.1 Often overshadowed in conservation discourse by, say, tropical rainforests or coral reefs, wetlands' potential for sustainable food production, biodiversity preservation, and vital ecosystem services is largely untapped. Here’s what you need to know about wetlands, biodiversity, and our food system.

What exactly is a wetland?

At its simplest, a wetland is an area of land where water covers the soil for a significant time, whether permanently or temporarily (several times each year). But this simple description fails to capture the impressive range and complexity of these habitats, which span the globe from the wetlands of the Arabian Peninsula, where temperatures can exceed 50 °C, to the peatlands of northeastern Siberia, which can drop to as low as −50 °C.2

While there are many types of wetlands, such as mangroves, swamps, fens and marshes, the most prominent are mires, also known as peatlands or bogs.3 They are cool, high-latitude wetlands where waterlogged, decayed plant material forms peat.

Meadows, swales and reed beds make up the Binsenberg slope spring bog in Germany, which covers about 36 hectares. (Photo by Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Meadows, swales and reed beds make up the Binsenberg slope spring bog in Germany, which covers about 36 hectares. (Photo by Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Why do wetlands matter?

Wetlands help regulate our climate and freshwater supply and quality.4 They also function as superb carbon storehouses. Peatlands, occupying a mere 3% of global land, hold about 30% of terrestrial carbon—twice the amount stored by all the world's forests.4

Wetlands are also remarkable biodiversity hotspots, covering only 6% of the Earth's land surface but providing food or habitat to around 40% of all known species.5 Whether as exclusive habitats or critical sites at key life stages, wetlands cater to an array of life forms, from providing refuge for migratory birds to serving as fish spawning grounds.

If that wasn't enough, wetlands also provide flood control, absorbing excess rainfall like a sponge. That water is naturally filtered as the carbon-rich soil removes sediments and pollutants, improving the quality of downstream water sources. They offer opportunities for scientific research and environmental education and tranquil settings for human recreational activities, from bird-watching to canoeing. And they even help with erosion control by stabilising shorelines and reducing the impacts of storms. Finally, they hold cultural and historical significance for many communities.5 Pretty impressive for 6% of terrestrial surfaces.

Wetlands and food systems

Have you enjoyed a bowl of rice recently? You can thank wetlands for that. Rice paddies, a form of managed wetlands, are responsible for producing this staple food of almost half the world's population.6

Consider Europe, too, where countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have extensively drained their wetlands for agriculture.7 If you've enjoyed fresh, succulent vegetables from the Netherlands or roasted root vegetables from the UK's fertile soils, you've benefited from these transformed landscapes. Once host to extensive wetlands, these nations have harnessed the rich, nutrient-filled soils to become significant producers of various agricultural products.

But these transformations carry a hefty ecological price. Since 1700 CE, it's estimated that we have lost between 54-57% of global wetlands, with some estimates indicating losses as high as 87%.8 The leading driver of this loss can be attributed to land use changes, particularly agricultural conversion, which is exacerbated by urban development, pollution, climate change, and the introduction of invasive species.9

Peat extraction is another significant driver of wetland degradation, with peat’s uses ranging from fuel in countries like Ireland to compost by both amateur gardeners and agribusinesses worldwide.10 This can significantly disrupt wetland ecosystems, leading to biodiversity loss, releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere, and leaving the area vulnerable to further degradation.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Crofters cutting peat at Loch Portain on the west coast of Scotland. Peat is a traditional fuel in many cultures, include Ireland and Scotland - a process that can be traced back to the Roman period. Peat is cut by hand and left to dry in the sun. After extraction, agricultural conversion of the land often talks place. (Photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Aerial view of peatland forest fires in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Illegal blazes are sometimes started by farmers to clear land for agricultural plantation expansion. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Feeding from the swamp

From shrimp and crayfish to wild rice and cranberries, wetlands can be incredibly productive ecosystems, provided we harvest sustainably. Communities like those of the Mesopotamian Marshes, which have practised sustainable fishing, reed harvesting, and water buffalo farming since ancient Sumerian times, are evidence of thriving cohabitation.

Today, these principles of wetland management are echoed in paludiculture. Paludiculture involves farming on peatlands without draining them, preserving their environmental benefits while simultaneously yielding agricultural products.11 This fusion of food production and environmental protection presents a promising strategy for sustainable agriculture.

The variety of food and resources that can be sustainably harvested from wetlands is staggering. Northern peatlands offer fruits such as chokeberries, cloudberries, and cranberries, while sago, a primary starch source, is harvested from Malaysian and Maluku Islands.12, 13 Wetland-raised water buffaloes, native to Europe and Asia, provide cheese (like mozzarella), meat, and can contribute to conservation grazing.14

Aside from food, wetlands offer a range of other resources. Alder and Canadian Poplar trees from Central and Northern Europe's peatlands provide timber and biofuel, while the cattail, prevalent across Central Europe, North America, and West Africa, is a source of construction material, solid fuel, and fibres for weaving mats and baskets.15 The Illipe Nut from the tropics is used as a cocoa butter substitute, and the Jelutong and Karet Oblong trees are used for latex production.16

But paludiculture is not a panacea for all environmental issues, and its sustainability depends on multiple factors, including the species cultivated and the water table level. A study by the National University of Singapore suggests that commercial paludiculture is most effective from a carbon sequestration standpoint on re-wetted peatlands, where it can be carbon neutral or even negative, while utilising intact wetlands may lead to increased emissions and environmental degradation.11

Recognising the invaluable role of intact wetlands for biodiversity and climate stability, their preservation is paramount. However, for those already degraded, paludiculture provides an effective restoration strategy that also fosters economic growth for local communities, thereby representing a comprehensive approach to peatland management. Combined with other initiatives, such as banning the sale of peat for agriculture, can help us keep carbon out of the atmosphere while producing food, fuel, and fibre.17

A new narrative

Wetlands, the vibrant crossroads of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, are repositories of biodiversity and potent carbon sinks. While they often lie in the shadow of more glamorous habitats, wetlands' untapped potential for sustainable food production is massive, and their contributions to ecosystem services and human culture are indispensable.

Now, more than ever, we must recalibrate our relationship with wetlands. They are not just the enigmatic domains of folklore, haunted by mythical creatures and treacherous quicksand, but thriving ecosystems that need our help and can nurture us if we protect them.

Let's rewrite the narrative from "draining the swamp" to "nourishing from the marsh” - for the health of our planet and all its inhabitants.

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References
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  2. RAMSAR (2021) “Wetlands and Biodiversity”
  3. RAMSAR (2015) “Wetlands – Why Should I Care?”
  4. National Geographic (2024) “Food Staple” Accessed 16/1/2024
  5. Weston (2023) “Half the wetlands in Europe lost in past 300 years, researchers calculate” The Guardian, Accessed 16/1/2024
  6. Davidson, Nick C. (January 2014). “How much wetland has the world lost? Long-term and recent trends in global wetland area”. Marine and Freshwater Research, 65(10), 936-941. DOI:10.1071/MF14173. Accessed 23 September 2023.
  7. Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (2015). “Wetlands: a global disappearing act”. Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Accessed 23 September 2023.
  8. Carroll, Rory and Connolly, Kate (12 December 2022). “‘Like an oilwell in your back yard’: Irish people turn to cutting peat to save on energy bills”. The Guardian. Accessed 23 September 2023.
  9. Tan, Zu Dienle; Lupascu, Massimo; Wijedasa, Lahiru S. (2021). “Paludiculture as a sustainable land use alternative for tropical peatlands: A review”. Science of The Total Environment, 753, 142111. ISSN 0048-9697. Accessed 23 September 2023.
  10. Abel and Kallweit (2022) “Potential Paludiculture Plants of the Holarctic” Greifswald Mire Centre, Accessed 16/1/2023
  11. Bintoro, Nurulhaq, Pratama, Ahmad & Ayulia (2018) “Growing Area of Sago Palm and its Environment” Sago Palm, Springer, Singapore
  12. BBC (2023) “Water buffalo herd introduced to Hertfordshire wetland reserve” Accessed 16/1/2023
  13. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (2020) “Importance of Cattails in Wetlands” USGS, Accessed 16/1/2024
  14. Adriyanti, Giesen, van der Meer, Coolen & Karyanto (2015) “Ilipe nut plantation on undrained peatland” FAO, Accessed 16/1/2024
  15. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Natural England; The Rt Hon Lord Benyon (27 August 2022). “Sale of horticultural peat to be banned in move to protect England’s precious peatlands”. UK Government. Accessed 23 September 2023.
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