Diversity key to improving food and nutritional security through agroforestry

AF food and nutritional securityAgroforestry can provide a variety of local, national and global benefits – food, fuel, fodder, fertilizer – but careful integration is essential if agroforestry is to have maximum benefit for food and nutritional security in developing countries.

A new working paper by scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre synthesizes what is known about how agroforestry directly contributes to food and nutritional security. It provides tree foods, supports staple crop production, increases farm incomes, supplies cooking fuel and provides ecosystem services such as pollination that maintain other food sources. Indirectly, agroforestry supports food production through providing shade and supporting crops and animal production, and improving soil fertility. The paper highlights policy issues that need to be addressed to maintain and enhance this contribution as well as areas for more research.

“With challenges of rising food prices, a growing population and climate change, there is a need to know more about the most effective combinations of trees, staple crops, vegetables and livestock, and how to manage them in particular environments.” outlines lead author and head of research into Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery at the World Agroforestry Centre, Ramni Jamnadass.

Diversification is a key element outlined in the paper, for providing year-round food and nutrition as well as buffering the impacts of climate change.

“One area of huge potential for improving nutrition is in the range of less-used indigenous food found in forests and wooded lands,” says Jamnadass. “Such trees are often much richer in micronutrients, fibre and protein than staple crops. But with deforestation and forest degradation, there is less access to these foods, so cultivation is a key alternative which can effectively increase yields and quality.”

Much of the paper’s focus is on sub-Saharan Africa, where 9 of the 20 nations with the highest burden of children under-nutrition worldwide are found. The average consumption of fruit and vegetables in this region is well below the minimum recommended daily intake.

“Mixed agroforestry systems that incorporate locally important food trees together with staple crops support nutrition, minimize risks and can provide farmers’ with increased and stable incomes,” says Jamnadass.

One example highlighted in the paper is that of shade coffee and shade cocoa systems which are traditionally practiced in many places and now being actively encouraged, such as through various certification schemes. Work is underway in Ghana Nigeria and Tanzania to domesticate the indigenous allanblackia tree so that it can be grown in mixed agroforestry systems by smallholder farmers integrated with crops such as cocoa. Allanblackia produces edible oil that is highly valued in the global food market.

“Diversity through agroforestry promotes ecological and social resilience to change because the various components and the interactions between them will respond in differing ways to disturbances.” Combinations of crops, animals and trees reduce risks, which will become increasingly important as the effects of climate change become more pronounced.

But while growing agroforestry products such as coffee, palm oil, cacao, tea and rubber can increase farmers’ incomes and enable them to purchase food, the paper points out that this is not without risk. Cash crops have been shown to result in the destruction of natural forests which contain important local foods. Food crops can also be displaced if there is a trend towards growing cash crops in monocultures.

“The key,” says Jamnadass “is to have a mix of systems.” But to achieve this, requires developments in agroforestry policies that reform tree and land tenure for the benefit of small-scale farmers, establish or improve systems that provide agroforestry inputs such as tree seed and seedlings, and encourage additional investment in agroforestry.

Improvements in the structure and coordination of markets are also needed. The paper notes how collective bargaining, transport infrastructure and involvement of multiple intermediaries in the supply chain can reduce farm prices.

The authors call for further research into tree domestication, especially indigenous fruit trees, to improve yields. The ability of agroforestry to enhance the complementarity and stability of food production in smallholder systems also needs further investigation, especially taking into account new environmental conditions such as are likely with climate change.

“While challenges exist for agroforestry to support food and nutritional security, there are tremendous opportunities for multifunctional, climate-smart agricultural methods that incorporate trees,” concludes Jamnadass.

Download the working paper:

Jamnadass R, Place F, Torquebiau E, Malézieux E, Iiyama M, Sileshi GW, Kehlenbeck K, Masters E, McMullin S, Weber JC, Dawson IK. 2013. Agroforestry, food and nutritional security. ICRAF Working Paper No. 170. Nairobi, Kenya: World Agroforestry Centre.

(Photo courtesy of Voice of America)

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Kate Langford

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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