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22 May 2019

Do homegardens hold the keys to food security and sustainable land management?

House in village in Sri Lanka.

Photo: Oskanov / GettyImages.

Growing trees and crops on the same land for many purposes, an agricultural technique called agroforestry, has gained a lot of traction. The method promises to restrain the effects of the climate change, nurture nature’s life support systems and shield the poorest and the most vulnerable people from food shortages.

Some countries, like Sri Lanka, have already started betting on agroforestry, seeking to build up food security and resilience. Fortunately, many Sri Lankan families already have homegardens, a traditional type of agroforestry mostly used for production of food crops for the gardeners and their families. So, the government decided to give an extra push to this age-old practice.

For instance, the National Food Production Programme 2016-2018 had a strong focus on local food production and encouraged people to grow vegetables and trees in their backyards. Homegardens also feature in Sri Lanka’s National Adaptation Plan for Climate Change, NAP for 2016–2025, are indirectly referenced in the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, INDCs and have a prominent role in climate mitigation goals under the UN REDD programme of the South Asian island nation.

But can homegardens remedy food insecurity? And is this agricultural technique a feasible and effective way to deliver on all of its climate and resilience promises? Appears, that the scientific knowledge base for the policies on homegardens is rather thin, according to the recent review paper by Eskil Mattson (Chalmers University of Technology), Madeleine Ostwald (Göteborg Center for Sustainable Development, GMV) and Sarath P. Nissanka (University of Peradeniya) published in the journal of Agroforestry Systems and presented at the Fourth World Congress on Agroforestry.

That said, the authors find that, in line with the rumors and rhetoric, homegardens in Sri Lanka do offer food security in dire times by providing multiple benefits and services, particularly for the poorer land users. In fact, according to the review, farmers who have homegardens tend to have better nutrition, and one study from the Batticaloa district reports that most of the people who have multi-layered homegardens with a mixture of annual and perennial crops are considered entirely food secure.

In general, the review also confirms the climate benefits of homegardens, indicating that this type of land use promotes high soil biota diversity, contributes to healthy ecosystems and has medium to high carbon storage ability, both under and above the ground.

Thakshila Priyadarshani Dissanayake, a student of the ISFF, attends to her organic garden outside her mother’s home in Badulla, Sri Lanka.

Photo: James Morgan (Internet Society) / Flickr.

So, investing in homegardens to improve food security and ensure climate resilience, especially in low to medium-income countries is not a bad idea. Yet, many of the reviewed studies indicate that it is necessary to tailor support to the needs of the farmers while helping them to become better at seizing business opportunities and effective resource management, like water harvesting and nutrient cycling.

For example, aiming to increase homegardens production the government provided farmers with seeds, plants or poultry. However, the fact that Sri Lanka has wet and dry zones and that people have homegardens in cities as we as in rural areas was not taken into account. So, the species and the breeds provided through the governmental support were not always suitable.

Studies clearly show that homegardens are effective for pro-poor food security strategy. However, a successful policy needs to provide enabling environment so farmers could build small-scale businesses, going beyond solely fruit and nut harvesting.

Additionally, equipping farmers with knowledge and techniques for sustainable water and waste management combined with knowledge about nutrition, especially when it comes to the underutilized spices, could help realize the full potential of homegardens in terms of sustainable land use.

The Sri Lankan case of homegardens and its positive climate-proofing and food security impacts is not unique. Similar evidence about various types of agroforestry is emerging around the world. However, many knowledge gaps remain, and policy decisions are often made without concrete research verification.

If we are to build effective food security strategies based on homegardening we need to learn how to select species to address certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies and how to combine plants with livestock. We are yet to develop practical manuals for creating a rich diverse homegarden from scratch, addressing all the necessary health and ecosystem benefits. The aspects of gender, water management and commercialization are understudied too.

Without better research in these areas, policies risk missing the point, wasting resources and time. And these are not infinite, especially in times of climate crisis and rising hunger.