New ideas about producing fuel and food on farms
Thinking about what to plant on farms is changing to include mixed systems, says Augustin Mercado
In the Philippines, the World Agroforestry Centre has been looking at ways of making smallholders’ farms more efficient producers of food and also fuel.
Both are predicted to be in increasingly short supply in the future as the planet’s population rises ever higher; fossil fuels decrease in supply, increase in cost and negatively affect climate; and changes to climate create constraints on traditional food production methods.
To try and address these issues, we’re considering a number of ways of improving existing food and fuel production systems and inventing new ones.
For example, coconut palms produce not only coconuts, from which we get coconut water, copra, coconut butter and coconut husks, but also sap, which can be tapped. From the sap, it’s possible to produce the bio-fuel ethanol. So it would seem a simple matter to start tapping existing palms and, in an overnight miracle, produce plenty of bio-fuel as well as all the other benefits from coconuts.
However, it’s not as simple as it looks at first glance. When we think about changing the ways farmers farm we need to consider three aspects: social, economic and environmental. In the case of the palm trees, they have to be tapped high up their trunk. Climbing up and down tall palms is not only exhausting and time-consuming it’s also dangerous for the farmers’ lives.
Accordingly, we’re now examining whether a variety of dwarf coconut palm might solve the height problem while also continue to deliver the other benefits. The bio-fuel from this type of system also looks like being carbon neutral.
As well as the coconut palm itself, we’re also investigating the best way to integrate coconut with cocoa trees in mixed agroforestry systems. Since both plants like similar ecological niches then why not mix them so that smallholders can diversify their income sources? We’ve also discovered that it’s possible to make wine from cocoa seeds’ mucilage, potentially in three different colours: red, yellow and green (depending on the maturity of the cocoa pod skin). An Australian winemaker will be working with us to help refine the process and products.
Mixing rubber and coffee trees has been proven to increase the productivity of the shade-loving coffee tree by up to three times. This is a significant finding as the world faces a potential shortage of coffee and cocoa owing to increasing temperatures in upland areas. We’re now considering how to make this type of system most efficient and help farmers establish it.
Our team is also continuing research on mixed tree and vegetable systems after publishing the results of a five-year project funded by the US Agency for International Development. That project found that planting vegetables between trees increased the productivity of the vegetables by up to 40%. This seemed to be the result of a combination of factors: reduced wind speed; higher soil moisture; improved drainage; leaf litter as fertilizer; and the attraction of birds as pest controllers and fertilizer producers. So far, we have a tested 36 different types of vegetables and ten different types of trees in these systems and are preparing indices of adaptability, supplementarity and net complementarity.
All of these efforts look very promising for not only producing more food and fuel but also helping to re-green the planet and mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Edited by Robert Finlayson
This work relates to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry