Agroforestry – pathway to secure the right to food in time of crisis

16Oct 2020
Crispin Gerald
The Guardian
Agroforestry – pathway to secure the right to food in time of crisis

​​​​​​​THE ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has not only affected health systems, but also threatened the right to food for one and all.

Today, as the globe marks World Food Day and the 75th anniversary of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, we have reason to voice our concern with the pandemic’s effects on food security, nutrition and livelihoods in East Africa.

Our region was already challenged by poverty, climate change, locusts, floods and food shortage before the outbreak of the virus.

It is now urgent that we take action to secure a sustainable and efficient land use, with the right to food as a major goal. A viable solution agroforestry is at hand, and it is time we give it greater recognition in policy and in practice.

Since the turn of the year 2020, the world has been battling an outbreak of the highly infectious new coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). Of particular concern is the negative effects of the pandemic on food security and food systems.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) recently estimated that in 2019, there were 2 billion people in the world who did not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, whereof nearly 750 million experienced severe food insecurity.

Covid-19 is currently predicted to cause a steep rise in numbers, forcing an additional 83-132 million people to go to bed hungry in 2020.

As we know, the pandemic comes on top of climate change shocks and other challenges threatening the food systems. The impacts hit the most vulnerable population hardest.

We argue that efforts to safeguard the welfare of the people and secure their access to nutritious food should be a top priority. We need ambitious interventions that secure our food systems from various shocks – urgently as well as more long-term.

One very important intervention, we believe, is increasing efforts to support smallholder farmers in more sustainable and resilient land use, particularly agroforestry. Agroforestry is a shock-resistant and sustainable way of growing food.

The method increases ecosystem services such as biodiversity, erosion control, drought resilience, carbon sequestration and increased soil moisture.

At the same time, it provides increased yields of nutritious food, medicine, shade, fuel, fodder, compost material and more.

Extensive research as well as our own long experience from projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda prove that farmer families who switch from monoculture to agroforestry are much better off already after a few months.

In fact, the only agricultural system that yields more than one product annually is agroforestry, whereas relying on a single crop tends to lead to food insecurity, a diversity of crops can give farmer families a more nutrient-rich diet and close the hunger gap between harvests of staple crops.

Global actors like FAO, the World Food Programme and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have therefore praised agroforestry as a viable means to help reach zero hunger by 2030 – a goal all countries have committed to under the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As a method, agroforestry has been well-known in many traditional contexts since a very long time. Yet, the method remains grossly underutilized.

The main challenge of adopting agroforestry among many smallholder farming families is the lack of a clear policy framework to define, host and spearhead a scaling up. Agroforestry is currently not coordinated properly in many countries.

Consequently, farmers struggle to access inputs, finance, extension- and advisory services, as well as markets. Policymakers can rectify the situation and create an enabling environment for adopting and scaling up agroforestry to meet food and nutritional security goals in communities and societies.

We call on policy makers, the private sector and civil society to help agroforestry take its rightful place in policies, plans and budgets to secure the right to food in a time of crisis.

To aid in this urgent task, we invite the media to reach out to policy makers as well as producers and consumers with information about the benefits of agroforestry.

As governments craft their development blueprints locally, regionally and globally, we urge them to give agroforestry priority, and to invite agroforestry producers to help shape sound policies and practices for everyone.

Agroforestry has various benefits over conventional agriculture which made it to be identified as a food production system of the future, among the benefits include;

Stabilization of soils reduces wind erosion and modifies the microclimate, trees planted as windbreaks have the capacity to reduce wind speed by nearly 50 percent and protect agricultural land from wind erosion.

Also, trees modify the microclimate (as air surrounding them feels cooler on a hot day), shield the surrounding from rain and slow down wind.

Lower input of agrochemicals through nitrogen fixation, recycling of nutrients and suppressing weeds through fallen leaves which act as mulch.

This minimizes the need for synthetic fertilizer and herbicides, which reduces the concentration of chemicals in agriculture runoff and prevents environmental pollution.

Improving soil fertility and closed nutrient cycle. Tree species like Acacia and Leucaena, fixes atmospheric nitrogen into soil, making it available to crops that do not have this ability.

  1. roots also prevent nutrient leaching from fields. Deeper and stronger root systems of trees can reach nutrients that would be unavailable to other plants and incorporate these nutrients into their leaves.

Agroforestry also helps in the prevention of runoff, better water management and cleaner groundwater. Tree roots and organic debris on the ground slows down runoff and holds back soil particles.

This provides time for nutrients to get gradually used up by vegetation or get transformed by soil microbes into soil enriching products rather than immediately changing chemistry of water bodies.

Improvement of wildlife and pollinator habitat, conventional agriculture with hectares of monoculture fields drives many species of birds, amphibians, insects and even mammals away from large areas of land.

Trees often serve as corridors, connecting different habitats and supporting free movements of animals by providing shelter, sources of food and space to many beneficial species.

Soil salinity control in raised groundwater. Trees species like Eucalyptus can withstand fairly high salt concentration. It is achieved through tree roots utilizing water from soils around them, while also losing some through their leaves in the process of transpiration. This helps to bring ground-water levels back to their normal state and reduce salinity.

Remediation of polluted soils. Trees have the ability to absorb pollutants (agricultural pesticides and heavy metals) from deeper soil layers and immobilize them in their woody parts. This is achieved through their roots creating a rich network that can reach as low as water table, hence preventing ground-water pollution from nutrient leaching and effectively removing soil contaminants.

Prevention of diverse products and poverty reduction, this includes timber and firewood, fruits, nuts, medicinal products and complementary fodder for animals, but also less obvious produce like mushrooms. Leaves and bark that can be marketed to gardeners as a premium mulching material. Hence agroforestry helps to alleviate financial stress of vulnerable communities.

Agroforestry also helps to prevent damage to forests, through the provision of a wide range of products, agroforestry practices help to prevent deforestation in places help to prevent needed for cooking and as a fuel for other activities.

But also, it helps in the climate change mitigation, Agroforestry combats climate change by sequestering atmospheric carbon, reducing deforestation, restoring degraded lands and biodiversity.

Vi Agroforestry (Vi-skogen) is a Swedish development organisation, fighting poverty and climate change together. We have contributed to planting over 120 million trees and improved the livelihoods for over 2.3 million people.