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What are the possibilities for agroforestry to ensure food security?

This article is based on the 2-day workshop “Can agroforestry address food security concerns under a changing climate?” held in November 2014 within the Focali-SIANI theme “Forests, Landscapes and Food Security”The purpose of this workshop was to bring together leading scholar-practitioners from five parts of the world, Sweden, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Ecuador, to share knowledge of and aspirations for agroforestry systems. 

Changing climate alters farming conditions. Switching rainfall patterns, new pests resistant to herbicides and land degradation from intensive monoculture farming are some of the problems that farmers are facing. Practice shows farming with multiple species of plants, including both trees and crops, is more resilient to a changing climate than mono-culture crop systems. Diversified farming systems can also provide food for farmers in cases when other crops fail as well as help to diversify income options and access to a range of nutrients and vitamins from nut and fruit trees grown on farms. Less visible but valuable benefits of these types of systems are increased soil fertility and water infiltration. Trees have also been proven to increase carbon uptake in vegetation and biomass, increase humidity and create micro-climates.  When trees are mixed with cropland the trees circulate nutrients from deeper layers in the soil through their root system and the tree. When the leaves then fall on the cropland it enables the crops to receive more nutrients than from the top-soil layer, which can sustain or even improve soil fertility. 

Diversity and mixed cropping are in the heart of agroforestry, and both scientists and practitioners claim that switching to agroforestry can reduce the effects of climate change and poverty as well as increase food security. This may be true but can successful agroforestry systems be copied from one place to another? And are they possible to scale-up and be linked to markets? Can agroforestry be a solution for food security under the changing climate? These are some of the questions that were discussed at the agroforestry workshop. 

Diversity of Agroforestry Systems

There are many definitions of what an agroforestry system is, but one of the most used is from the United States Department of Agriculture stating: “Agroforestry is aland use management system in which trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops or pasture land. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy, and sustainable land-use systems”.

Eskil Mattsson, agroforestry specialist and researcher from Chalmers University, pointed out that agroforestry is a traditional farming system that can be found on 43% of all agricultural land globally. So, it is no surprise that there are so many names for this farming method, depending on the ecological, geographical and cultural differences ranging from silvopastures to home gardens, and alley intercropping to shade systems.

Can we understand and model agroforestry systems on a global or national level? Can we predict how it would behave if we create new or replicate old sub-systems? Are agroforestry systems complex or worse? These are the questions asked by Assistant Professor Claes Andersson from Chalmers who specializes in system science and modeling. In his presentation Andersson pointed out that the practice of agroforestry over the world is diverse and complex: “Biological systems such as agroforestry are very complex and embody the wisdom of generations of close interactions with local environments, and it might not be possible to make a general theory of how it should be developed further”.

Social Benefits of Agroforestry

There is a widespread belief that agroforestry systems can deliver nutritious food, contribute to poverty alleviation and contribute to resilience to climate change. Håkan Wirtén, Secretary General of WWF Sweden is one of the followers of such an idea. He told about how WWF-supported projects in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Vietnam, Brazil, Philippines, and Madagascar help to fight deforestation and poverty alleviation with agroforestry application.  According to Wirtén “one of the WWF’s projects on the 200,000ha land in Madagascar integrates agroforestry with market, reduces poverty and creates new opportunities via Fairtrade labelling”.

In his advocacy work with Forest Action Nepal, Professor Naya Paudel emphasizes the dual benefits of agroforestry systems – food security and resilience. According to Paudel, Nepalese laws prohibit the inhabitants from including agriculture in forest areas even though the country has been suffering from a food shortages. “The multiple benefits of agroforestry have to be understood by the politicians and decision makers, says Paudel.

The Market Perspective

Markets are both the main driver as well as a challenge of agroforestry’s success. For an agroforestry system to perform at scale there needs to be a demand for its products. Successful adaptation of crops to be produced for the market enables farmers to expand and intensify agroforestry. It can provide additional income to farmers and allows for farm diversification, while maintaining subsistence or cash crops.

Kamy Melvani, from the Neo Synthesis Research Centre (NSRC) in Sri Lanka has long experience with landscape restoration from this island nation. NSRC is an NGO specialized in ecological restoration, and have developed an effective approach to reclaiming badly degraded landscapes into productive forest gardens. Melvani’s approach to landscape restoration is farmer-centered: “One always needs to put a farmer in the center and ask what he or she needs”. “From an academic and political point of view biodiversity is one of the results of agroforestry farming. However, when promoting the practice of agroforestry to a farmer, the argument of biodiversity will not trump one on increased yields. What a farmer first and foremost wants is something he or she can eat.”

It has been proven that small and medium scale farmers can reap the benefits of mixing trees, shrubs, crops and animals in the farmland – be it environmental, economic or social benefits. But can agroforestry be a solution both for climate change and food security challenges? “Probably not”, says Melvani “but functional diversification of landscapes can”.  She continues to emphasize how it is crucial to see that agroforestry systems are very context specific.

Bringing experience from the Ecuadorian context, Aliana Piñeiro of the RUNA Foundation stressed that adapting crops to the market has to be profitable for farmers as well as it needs to be ecologically sound. One way the Runa Foundation works on this is by commercializing a drink produced from the plant Ilex Guayusa. “It is important that we make value of tropical forests that benefit both people and forest ecosystems” Piñeiro says. She continues “As we ramp and scale up this market, how can we manage this growth sustainably? We think agroforestry is the answer”.

Wangu Mutua from the Kenyan division of Vi Agroforestry agrees with Piñeiro on how to motivate farmers to diversify from mono-culture farming; “Agroforestry has to make business sense”, she says. “You would not ask me to pick up a practice that would be more expensive for me to implement and give me less yields or less income than I was getting before”. Vi Agroforestry has a long experience of planting trees and working together with farmers in low-income countries and has worked in Kenya since 1983. 

So can Agroforestry address Food Security concerns under a Changing Climate?

Experts with years of experience from the field agree the power of agroforestry is not only in the production of nutritious food and generation of stable incomes for small-scale farmers, but also in creating resilient landscapes through provision of ecosystem services and resistance towards extreme weather.

It has been widely discussed that agroforestry can be used as an additional income source through carbon credits. However, while there are some successful examples, the value of carbon credits for smallholders is debated among practitioners and the argument is that carbon is not a priority for a smallholder. Additionally, it might take a long time till carbon credit would start to bring profit, so planting food crops might be addressing the needs of farmers in a better way.

Another limitation is that creation of markets for agroforestry products needs large initial capital as well as substantial research and development which is risky in cases of new product development. Agroforestry systems, especially on a small scale, cannot really compete with the large-scale corporate farming companies in terms of product output, and bringing large-scale companies into agroforestry is a challenge of itself. The possibilities and challenges for agroforestry as a farming system to address food security concerns is a much debated issue and participants of the workshop all contributed to the discussion with from different experiences and perspectives from around the world which will be summarized in a policy brief and published later this year. Would you like to know more?

Watch the videos of our speakers’ presentations from the event.

Find all the videos and presentations here…

Also, find out more about agroforestry in our discussion briefs:

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