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Africa faces food security and climate change challenges, is agroforestry the solution?

Many benefits are recognized from the use of agroforestry practices in Africa. However, the challenge is identifying the conditions that must be met for the successful establishment of agroforestry as a sustainable solution – Cheikh Mbow, Senior Scientist with the World Agroforestry Centre.


Photo credit: Niel Palmer (CIAT)

Photo credit: Niel Palmer (CIAT)

These challenges were recently addressed by Mbow and colleagues in an article featured in a special issue of Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (COSUST).

The authors highlighted a number of recognized benefits arising from the use of agroforestry in smallholder systems, such as enhancing soil fertility and improving household resilience through the provision of additional products for sale or home consumption.

Furthermore, with an increasing imperative for smallholder farmers to adapt to and mitigate climate change, agroforestry offers a cost-effective option of doing so. Many studies have shown that agroforestry practices can sequester carbon from the atmosphere and diversify rural livelihoods through the provision of ecological and economic benefits.

However, these benefits are often overshadowed by the challenges of establishing tree-based systems in areas marred by poor land use and lack of governmental oversight: while many smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa practice agroforestry, adoption has not been widespread and this may be attributed to the political and socioeconomic environment, or the farmers’ disposition towards trees on their farms.

These obstacles are compounded by the lack of support for tree-based systems through public policies, and this is something that requires shifts in regional and national-level institutional frameworks.

As Mbow points out,

“Not all agroforestry options are viable everywhere. The current state of knowledge is insufficient to determine what systems work where, for whom, and under what circumstances. Therefore, we identified a number of questions that should be answered to give us more insight”.

Agroforestry’s contribution to food security and climate change goals

In many cases, the main motivating factors for the adoption of agroforestry practices are the assets gained from ecosystem services and food security, however, despite these clear advantages, the practical issue of implementing agroforestry practices at the local-level is met with some difficulties.

Some of these difficulties may be particularly relevant for farmers who own small areas of land and who may be unwilling or unable to spare land for agroforestry, and for farmers who face insecurity in terms of their land ownership and are reluctant to invest in the immediate cost of planting trees that may benefit the next owner of the land.

Given this, further research is needed to determine how and under what circumstances agroforestry can contribute to enhancing food security and livelihood resilience in the face of climate change, particularly for poor and rural communities in Africa.

Farm in the Mt. Kenya region. Photo credit: Niel Palmer (CIAT)

Farm in the Mt. Kenya region. Photo credit: Niel Palmer (CIAT)

Carbon storing benefits of agroforestry

Tree-based systems are often considered a cost-effective strategy for climate change mitigation because of the carbon storage capacities of the soils and woody biomass.

This carbon sequestration potential stems from the large areas that are potentially suitable for agroforestry. However, to date the authors did not find any clear research on how this potential could be realized. Particularly given the issue of the slow process of carbon sequestration in agroforestry when compared to plantations of forestry species. Therefore, more research is needed on the circumstances regarding carbon finance and where it can be used to allow farmers to implement agroforestry.

Potential of agroforestry to moderate climate extremes

In particular, high temperatures may be mitigated since tree canopies can create a more adequate microclimate for crops that would lead to better food production. However, as with other benefits highlighted in the review, further research is needed to determine the optimum tree cover for climate change adaptation in varied environmental settings.

Ultimately, while the authors acknowledge the solutions offered by agroforestry for food security and climate change challenges, they stress the importance of further research in many areas to ensure all receives these benefits. Indeed, as Mbow concludes,

“We hope this paper will offer insight as to which areas require further research and efforts to answer these questions will contribute to improving our understanding of agroforestry and its impacts, so that is may be used to its full, positive, advantage in Africa”.

This article appears in a special issue of the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability on the theme ‘Sustainability challenges.’  The full special issue is available Open Access at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/18773435/6/supp/C

The issue will be launched during the World Congress on Agroforestry, Delhi, February 2014.

Read More:

Download the full article.

Agroforestry systems in a changing climate – challenges in projecting future performance.

Achieving mitigation and adaptation to climate change through sustainable agroforestry practices in Africa.

Replacing industrial fertilizers with legume trees: beans for thought?

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