Agroforestry front and centre at UN nutrition seminar

By Patrick Worms

Vietnam farmer cooperator in the AFLI project watering Son tra seedlings. Photo By Nhung Bui/ICRAF

Vietnam farmer cooperator in the AFLI project watering Son tra seedlings. Photo By Nhung Bui/ICRAF

Two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus famously predicted a Hobbesian world of runaway population growth outstripping food supplies, with mass starvation as the ultimate sanction for human profligacy. That he has so far been proven wrong is surely humanity’s most wondrous achievement. Today, over 7 billion of us are alive and fed. Yes, far too many are still not enjoying three square meals a day. But few are threatened with Malthus’ horrible death – even as about 870 million are still chronically food insecure.

But the way many of our bellies get filled is far from ideal. The UN reckons about 2 billion people are missing essential micronutrients such as minerals and vitamins. The abundant availability of cheap, nutrient-poor carbohydrates and our age-old craving for sugars and fats are leading to an explosion of metabolic diseases. The World Health Organization estimates that 347 million people suffer from diabetes, over 500 million are obese, and one in three adults has high blood pressure. And this does not just strike the rich world anymore. “In some African countries, as much as half the adult population has high blood pressure,” Margaret Chan, the WHO’s Director-General, said last year. Both under- and malnutrition increasingly affect the same countries. Take India. It has one-third of the world’s under-nourished children – while 10% of its adult population has raised blood glucose levels.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there is climate change to consider. Many fear its adverse impact on agricultural productivity – and on the food security of the poor. Figuring out how to tackle these issues has become a major global issue. Next year, the UN will hold its Second International Conference on Nutrition. But the real work on these things gets done before, in various technical meetings. One such was convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN’s Standing Committee on Nutrition, and Bioversity in Rome on 12 November: the “Nutrition and Sustainability Seminar”. This brought together over 250 development, nutrition and agriculture professionals.

For your correspondent, invited to talk about the crucial role that agroforestry can play in combating malnutrition, hearing speaker after speaker suggest that tackling these huge challenges would demand a fully holistic set of approaches that considers the essential role of agrobiology was welcome.

There were ringing calls for the wider adoption and use of local species of fruits and vegetables. Serious doubts were expressed about the wisdom and efficacy of relying on supplements to access needed vitamins and micronutrients. And the key role of women, as farmers, family cooks and mothers, was justly celebrated. From the opening keynote of the Millennium Institute’s Hans Herren to the astute nutritional analysis of the FAO’s Barbara Burlingame, everyone encouraged us to look at agrobiodiversity as a key component of tomorrow’s healthy, nutritious food systems.

In that environment, agroforestry has a lot to contribute – something that was news, albeit very welcome news, to some delegates. Over 50 fruit tree species are currently being domesticated by farmers in West Africa using participatory techniques developed by ICRAF, for example. In Kenya, smallholder farmers plant a variety of fruit trees around their houses to ensure a year-round supply of nutritious fruits. ICRAF has documented fruit-bearing homegardens almost everywhere it has looked. And many of the local fruits favoured by smallholders offer nutritional profiles that far exceed those of widely planted exotics such as mangoes. The fruits of the baobab tree, for example, can offer six times the vitamin C that oranges do!

Of course, trees help tackle mal- and under-nutrition in many others ways. They protect the land from erosion, help the soil absorb water, and provide a very welcome microclimate to crops in harsh climates. Some even act as fertiliser factories, by fixing atmospheric nitrogen and returning it to the soil through leaf and litter fall.

While none of this will be news to most readers of this blog, it was news to a surprising number of people in that meeting. That it did not feel out of place to most of them is perhaps the most encouraging outcome of this meeting. Agroforestry is coming in from the wilderness to a very warm welcome.

Patrick Worms is a Senior Science Policy Adviser at ICRAF.

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Further  information on ALFI Project: “Seeds of growth” begin to germinate on Vietnam uplands'

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 ( 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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