Dark clouds ahead but we can shelter beneath the trees

Scientists are making bleak forecasts for our food supply. But putting more trees on farms might help stave off disaster, says Regine Joy P. Evangelista

Philippine, natural hazards, climate-change adaptation

Dark clouds are looming and there are stormy waters ahead for food security in the Philippines. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

A week before the Philippine national meteorological agency is set to declare the official start of summer, a low pressure area is brewing in the southern part of the Philippines.

The month of March typically bears the brunt of the summer heat: no rain, not even clouds. And now, in the middle of March, that low pressure area is bringing cloudy skies to Luzon and rain and thunderstorms to Visayas and Mindanao.

Erratic weather patterns or, as scientists say, climate variability, is a major concern for farmers everywhere. Knowing what to plant and when is a huge factor in creating a successful cropping season. But with the changing climate, farmers are confused as the line between wet and dry seasons seems to blur. The early or late onset of the rainy season and the slew of typhoons that batter the country throughout the year (instead of the usual few months) are threatening their livelihoods and the country’s food supply.

Dark clouds and showers are also present here in the agricultural province of Bohol, Central Visayas, during the First International Agroforestry Congress. The theme of the gathering, “Agroforestry: Greening and feeding the nations”, speaks volumes about the most pressing issues in the world today: environmental degradation and food security in the face of climate change. Agroforestry as a holistic approach to addressing these issues is exactly what the scientists and practitioners present at the congress are trying to move forward.

Rodel Lasco: “We are at a crossroads and we have a choice.”

Among the prominent scientists present at the congress is Dr Rodel Lasco, Country Coordinator of the World Agroforestry Centre Philippine Office. In his plenary presentation about the role of agroforestry in climate-change adaptation, he stressed that the impacts of climate change that we are experiencing today are likely to only get worse. Looking at the climate scenarios developed by the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change, if we do not substantially cut carbon emissions today, the world will be a very different place in 2100. The time to act is now.

Farmers and climate change

Dr Lasco showed that there will be grave consequences should the agriculture sector fail to adapt to climate change. A study by the Asian Development Bank in 2009 found that, without adaptation, rice yields in the Philippines, other Asian countries and throughout the world were likely to decline by as much as 50%. In the Philippines, a study showed that overall rice production could fall by 22% during both wet and dry seasons. But it’s not all bad news.

Dr Lasco said that, “climate change might also have positive impacts on crop growth”. Some areas might become more productive as crops welcomed the change in temperatures.

However, this might hold not true for the Philippines. Projections show large areas with 5–25% reductions for irrigated rice harvests and even more for rainfed production systems.

“Smallholder farmers in developing countries like the Philippines largely practise rainfed agriculture and forestry and therefore depend on climate systems”, said Dr Lasco.

The dependence of these farmers on natural systems makes them highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. This includes the changing spatial  and  temporal  patterns  of  temperature  and  precipitation that expose smallholders to  tremendous climate  risks,  causing  crop  failure  and  affecting  their livelihoods  and  health.

Agroforestry as adaptation

Adopting agroforestry to shield farmers against present and future climate-change impacts can turn the story around. Agroforestry, or in the simplest terms, the integration of trees on farms, is increasingly being recognized by both the scientific and government sectors as a sustainable land-use option. Implemented in multi-functional landscapes, it enhances farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change through food provision, supplementary income and environmental services. Various studies have found that agroforestry can increase farm productivity through, in part, crop diversification. It also provides various ecological benefits, such as reducing soil erosion by increasing biomass, reducing water loss by increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil, and adding to the available nutrients for crops. All this can also lead to an increase in the farmers’ income. The multiple benefits provided by incorporating trees on farms can help poor farmers cope with the impacts of climate change today and help them be better prepared for the future. This is something the scientists and researchers know as fact.

However, Dr Lasco challenged everyone present at the congress to not assume that farmers also appreciated the role of trees in their farms. The challenge for scientists and researchers does not only lie in the impacts if climate change but in providing evidence that farmers can understand of the benefits of agroforestry. The great wealth of information on agroforestry needed to spread beyond the walls of the conference hall and reach its primary beneficiaries: smallholder farmers.


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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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