‘Farming the associations’ with trees for food security, climate resilience

Intercropped farm in Meru, Kenya. Photo by Sammy Carsan/ICRAF

At a webinar on agroforestry’s potential to foster food security and mitigate and build resilience to climate change, keynote speaker Emmanuel Torquebiau said agroforestry was not simply about “farming trees and farming crops side by side.”

“It is, rather, about farming the associations between crops or animals and trees.” In well-designed agroforestry systems, the ecological requirements of crops, livestock and trees (e.g. shade/light requirements, root structure, and water demand), market value and other considerations in time and space are taken into account, together, he explained.

“We still find people growing monocrops of say, cereal, and trying to bring some trees into the system. [However,]…the right way is to design the whole system so that innovative associations [are created] that are able to address food security and climate change at the same time,” said Professor Torquebiau, an ecologist and climate change expert with the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD).

The online learning event consists of four interactive web seminars (webinars) during February 2013, and discussion on the social media forums of the Community of Practice for Climate Change Mitigation in Agriculture. It is part of the advocacy work of Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations  (FAO) for the adoption of policies that enable the practice of agroforestry, as a means to address the worrying duo of hunger and climate change. According to the latest figures by FAO, 870 million people are undernourished.

Torquebiau stated that the buffering and resilience effects of agroforestry have been well known for over four decades.

“The fact that agroforestry is able to buffer climate variability was found right at the beginning…towards the end of the 1970s and early ‘80s.” He explained that this buffering is the result of permanent tree cover and varied ecological niches that characterize agroforestry systems. Permanent tree cover protects and improves the soil. Varied ecological niches, along with diverse commodities, allow agile response and resilience to market needs and shocks.

“Resilience, or the ability to recover after a disaster such as extreme weather or market failure, is well performed by agroforestry,” he stated. This happens because agroforestry has a variety of tree-crop associations that can be managed depending on where you are … and other conditions.” This management flexibility also means that agroforestry systems can cope with shifts in labour supply. Furthermore, he said, the “non-harvested components” of the systems (such as woody material and plant litter), serve as important stores for carbon in the soil, while protecting it from erosion and desiccation.

“The concept of climate-smart agriculture, which has been widely promoted by FAO, in most instances, includes trees,” said Torquebiau. Conservation agriculture and evergreen agriculture too, are based on agroforestry principles. The former uses soil cover and minimum tillage, while the latter applies trees, both performing the function of caring for the soil and the environment, which improves the performance of crops.

Compared to single-species systems, agroforestry “has the double-potential to address the duality of climate change issues: greenhouse gas mitigation, and sustainable adjustment to changing conditions (adaptation)”, said Torquebiau. “Agroforestry boosts the synergy between the two; it is a landscape approach that supports biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

To illustrate the potential of agroforestry to mitigate climate change, Torquebiau said although agroforestry systems sequester less carbon per unit area than managed or primary forests (50-75 Mg C ha-1 vs 100-300 Mg C ha-1), modeling shows that overall, the long-term potential for agroforestry systems to sequester carbon is greater, because a lot of the world’s landmass can be converted to agroforestry. Indeed, the recent climate change conference in Doha recognized trees on farms and agricultural landscapes as key to mitigation and adaptation, under the REDD+ process.

Torquebiau concluded by saying there was no “pre-cooked, perfect solution or recipe” to address climate change with agroforestry, but with care, the right associations can make a difference.

“There are many possible associations; some work, and some don’t. Care should be taken to select the right tree–crop associations and management practices that will address food security and climate change simultaneously.”

At the same webinar, Gérard Buttoud, a consultant policy expert with FAO, presented an overview of a new guidebook: Advancing agroforestry on the policy agenda: A guide for decision makers. The guide was prepared with the involvement of multiple stakeholders across the globe. It contains a set of principles, case studies, and best practices to inspire decision makers to integrate agroforestry into national policy frameworks.

“We hope it will be the starting point of a process to convince decision makers of the importance of agroforestry,” said Buttoud, a Professor at the University of Tuscia, Italy.

FAO’s Fred Kafeero discussed the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition, 13-15 May, which will increase global understanding of the crucial role that forests, trees on farms and agroforestry systems can play in improving the food security and nutrition of rural people, especially in developing countries. The confernce will also propose ways to integrate this knowledge in policy decisions at the national and international levels.


The World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) have partnered with FAO’s Mitigation of Climate Change in Agriculture (MICCA) Programme and the Agroforestry Programme of the Forestry Department in the webinar series, the publication and the conference. The online learning event takes place until 26 February. The webinars are held on 5, 12, 14 and 19 February 2013.

The Recording of the session of the 5 February webinar is available online: http://bit.ly/VGJ5nc

All information of the learning event is available on: www.fao.org/climatechange/micca/79527

Presentations are available for download at:

Agroforestry and climate change Presentation by Emmanuel Torquebiau, CIRAD

Advancing agroforestry on the policy agenda: a Guide for decision-makers 
Presentation by Gérard Buttoud, FAO

International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition  Presentation by Fred Kafeero, FAO


Related articles:

A step closer to realising the potential of agroforestry

Mitigation and adaptation: a perfect marriage made on farms

Five ways agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change


Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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