The role of biodiversity in agroforestry and other types of smallholder farming

To feed a growing population, agricultural production needs to be stepped up. Photo: World Agroforestry

By Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing

The global supply and consumption of food has increased over the last 50 years. However, due to our focus on increased productivity, our access to diverse and healthy foods has radically reduced. Many people remain hungry and increasing numbers have micronutrient deficiencies.

For improved security of food and nutrition, and a more sustainable environment, we must look to the wide range of less well-known species available in many developing countries to improve diversity.

In a new book, scientists discuss the role of biological diversity in agriculture. Agricultural biodiversity or agrobiodiversity provides alternatives to conventional agricultural crops.  It can harness diverse biological resources to make food production more sustainable.


Agrobiodiversity includes a wide variety of species and genetic resources as well as techniques farmers can use to produce and manage crops. It can enhance the use of marginal lands to provide a minimum level of food production, even in the harshest living conditions.

Dimensions of food security

We can define food security as access to food for everyone at all times that is sufficient, safe and nutritious. This places the emphasis on access to healthy food, rather than food production.

The lack of social and economic access to adequate calories and nutrition is affected by three main ‘food entitlement sources’; owning the means of production, the ability to purchase or provide in-kind exchange and the transfer of resources between households. In addition, food production needs to be stable over time to provide food security.

The food system concept

In changing climatic conditions achieving food security without environmental damage is essential. A food system concept includes production, processing, packaging, distribution, selling and consuming food.

Smallholder farming households

Focusing on smallholder farming households helps us to see the gap between global understanding and the local potential for food and nutrition security.Local agrobiodiversity can contribute to food security and economic improvement for smallholder farming households. Where people can see benefits to their nutrition and income, they are more likely maintain and protect their environment and resources.

A woman shows produce from her farm. Photo: World Agroforestry

At the household level the food system approach has three main components; food availability, access and use. Availability of sufficient calories, proteins and micronutrients is provided by local production and distribution channels and the ability to make purchases or to exchange labour. An indicator of accessibility is affordability, illustrating how well local markets and exchange mechanisms work. Food use is illustrated through patterns of consumption and food choices, alongside health services, sanitation and childcare.

Nourishment and nutrition

Processed calorie-rich foods at affordable prices help to meet food energy needs. However, for good health, agrobiodiversity in food systems is required to provide a wide and varied range of nutrient-rich foods and dietary components.

Smallholder farmers can develop products that meet the demands of local food cultures and which also offer nutritional and cultural benefits to rural and urban consumers. There is a complex relationship between the ‘food system activities’ and ‘food security outcomes’ which require multiple coordinated solutions.

Farmers in northern Viet Nam establishing an agroforestry system of longan trees intercropped with pumpkin. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Tran Ha My

A multifactor approach

Support– Small holder farmers can support the wider conservation of agrobiodiversity and plant genetic resources. To do this successfully they need regular advice and information, tailored to their needs. However, rural development workers are often under-funded and under-resourced, leading to local exclusion. Private funding, community training and input from the public sector and non-governmental organisations can move the agenda forward.

Local dialogue– discussions on food and nutrition security at the local level can help to integrate smallholder farmers into the food system and allow them to make better-informed choices. Community health workers can deliver successful nutrition education programmes to influence food selection and cooking. Providing information to wider social networks is also helping to achieve sustainable bahavioural change. Overall, learning to speak a ‘common language’ is necessary for long-term success.

Long-term commitment– smallholder farmers need the long-term help of institutions to bring new products to market. Currently efforts are often badly targeted, poorly implemented and rarely enforced. Even when crops are successful, smallholders are discouraged from accessing formal markets due to a range of taxes and fees.

Government involvement– protective policies from government could improve transparency and capacity to bring about change. Integrating smallholder farmers into value chains for non-traditional fruit and vegetable crops could improve diversity and nutrition.

Stimulating demand– whilst some foods with high nutritional value might not be desirable locally, they could be attractive to urban markets. Local education about nutrition and sales processes will encourage interest from other stakeholders that will help to integrate smallholders’ niche products into the market.

Risk management– there are examples of niche products becoming so popular that markets become flooded, resulting in falling prices and serious financial losses for smallholder farmers. Compensation mechanisms are needed to protect farmers from these inevitable downturns, including market price guarantees and insurance schemes. Access to centralised market information could also reduce exploitation by wholesalers.

A smallholder farm in Tanzania. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Todd Rosenstock

In summary

Sustainable use of the most readily available resource for smallholder farmers, local agrobiodiversity, can have positive benefits. It can enhance the use of agricultural land and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

View/purchase the book chapter here


‘The role of biodiversity in agroforestry and other types of smallholder farming’by Mary Ng’endo, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Kenya; and Shonil A. Bhagwat, The Open University, UK, is a chapter in: Mosquera-Losada, M. R. and Prabhu, R. (eds.), Agroforestry for sustainable agriculture, Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing, Cambridge, UK, 2019, (ISBN: 978 1 78676 220 7;



World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is a centre of science and development excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Leveraging the world’s largest repository of agroforestry science and information, we develop knowledge practices, from farmers’ fields to the global sphere, to ensure food security and environmental sustainability.ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

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