By Oliver Moore
Two key food events held in Dublin, Ireland, as part of the Irish EU presidency showed up the importance of agroforestry in a number of direct and indirect ways.
Agroforestry was prominently promoted at some high profile global events in April. Dr. Frank Place, Impact Assessment Advisor with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), was, along with Dr. Alexandre Meybeck of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a keynote presenter at the Food Security Futures conference held in Dublin, Ireland in April. Theirs was one of just four keynote presentations over the two day event. At the larger Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice event which had Malawian farmers who practice agroforestry present, keynote presenter Al Gore made reference to the potential of agroforestry to help alleviate some of these interconnected food, climate and hunger/nutrition problems.
Indeed, the fact that there are ‘silos’ of knowledge areas was a recurring theme for the experts from the global food security research community. That climate, nutrition, ecosystem and food security experts, and other categories of expertise, need to work together was an oft-repeated refrain at the Food Security conference. Such collaboration would, it was suggested, make all of their models and scenarios more robust.
A modest suggestion: perhaps agroforestry is a tool for the food security community to reach out to these other communities to build these more robust models. This could make sense because, as the Frank Place and Alexandre Meybeck’s background paper presented at the Food Security conference pointed out, agroforestry is relevant in each of these areas, and more. Some of the main evidence-based arguments in this paper are outlined here.
1. Yield and profitability
While “specialised systems” (i.e.monocultures) are often presented as profitable and easy to adapt technology towards, diversifying production—as is the case in agroforestry systems—can also improve efficiency in the use of land…. and of nutrients through “the introduction of legumes in the rotation or in integrated crop-livestock or rice-aquaculture systems. Studies show that diversified systems can also be more efficient in terms of income, especially if this is measured as an average over a period of several years.”
Through techniques such as the use of fertilizer and fodder trees, agroforestry improves both incomes and productivity:
“Agroforestry also helps diversify income sources and provides energy and often fodder for livestock. Nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees, such as Faidherbia albida, increase soil fertility and yields.”
“Less land needed per family, (there is) increased productivity of labour and capital, better use of fertilizers, reduced soil erosion.”
2. Hunger and nutrition
Research from 21 African countries found “a statistically significant and non-linear relationship between tree cover and fruit and vegetable consumption which peaks at about 53 percent tree cover.”
In the same study, to be published soon, the authors also showed that children’s dietary diversity increases with tree cover for the majority of the population.
Agroforestry improves farming practices and makes other necessary activities more efficient around the home. Having trees on farmed land, or having access to trees nearby, means that women, who do most of this work, do not have to travel (as) far to collect firewood, or the food or medicinal plants otherwise far-flung forests contain. This saves time and is safer for the women involved, who, with tree access, also have opportunities to diversify family incomes by making products derived from trees, plants and shrubs, such as soaps and shampoos. With a greater range of potentially profitable plants (shrubs, bushes, vegetables, trees) close to the home on the farm, women farmers have a greater potential to generate diverse incomes.
World Agroforestry Centre and Irish Aid initiatives in places like Malawi place significant emphasis on gender, with over 50% of beneficiaries being women.
4. Ecosystem services
At the Food Securities event, Bernard Giraud of Danone pointed to agroforestry as helping prevent damaging sediment and water loss from farms. Indeed, Danone fund such initiatives in numerous countries. In the case Giraud cited, this support comes because the small scale dairy farmers that supply Danone increase milk yield with agroforestry, but also because the region is more stable and secure—dams do not overflow with water.
From the background paper:
“Forests and agroforests provide crucial ecosystem services. [It] …contributes to prevent soil erosion, facilitates water infiltration, recycles nutrients below crop rooting levels and diminishes the impacts of extreme weather.”
5. Climate Change mitigation and adaptation
The connection between strong soil and climate change adaptation shows just how interlinked these benefits of agroforestry can actually be.
Agorforestry trees help with carbon storage (in the trees and in the soil) while they also provide a robustness against extreme and erratic weather (shelter against storms, soil water retention during drought).
Place and Meybeck state that:
“Tree-growing on farms … can diminish the effects of extreme weather events, such as heavy rains, droughts and wind storms, and prevent erosion, stabilize soils, raise infiltration rates and halt land degradation.”
What’s listed above under the various categories is just a snapshot, mostly taken from a single academic paper. Of course, the food system is complex. There are issues with transport, storage, infrastructure, subsidies and trade blocks, cultural habits and preferences, and a host more, which shape people’s relationship with food and food production. This in turn impacts on climate change, hunger, nutrition and other hugely important areas. Its also the case that agroforestry may only provide a partial solution in some suited areas.
However, agroforestry seems to have a solid set socio-environmental factors in its favour. It has, rather than what are sometimes called (negative) externalities (NE’s), such as Green House Gases from inorganic fertilizer production and transportation, (positive) internalities (PI’s). These PI’s are displayed by and through the inter-relatedness of the ecosystem, climate change, socio-economic and agronomic factors cited in the main body above. And indeed by the fact that these positives all flow from an agroforestry origin. So the ‘good stuff’ leads to a range of other goods, be it synergistic, symbiotic, or simply serendipitous.
Maybe its time for the global research community to start to seriously think about how to better understand agroforestry’s potential. And if agroforestry emerges from this process as a genuine solution to the myriad of food related issues that abound, the next task will be to upscale the practice where it makes sense to.
Dr. Oliver Moore is a researcher and writer living in Ireland. He is associate researcher with UCC’s Centre for Co-operative Studies. More of his research and writing can be found at his blog and on the ARC2020 website. He can be found on twitter at @oliver_moore
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