The United Nation’s International Day of Forests and the Tree brings attention to these aspects of our landscapes. Forests and trees fill many roles, ranging from cultural and spiritual importance to sustenance, livelihoods, watershed protection and important carbon sinks in the face of climate change. Despite the many purposes and capacities of forests, we are destroying them at a rapid pace. This post, by Daniel Kapsoot at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), highlights the potential role for agroforestry intensification in the solution to both deforestation and food shortages in Africa.
According to scientists at ICRAF, conventional crop production in Africa has been seriously hampered by the degradation of soil fertility, water and biodiversity. Yields for important staple cereals like maize have stagnated at 1 tonne per hectare. Climate change and an increasing demand for food, animal fodder and fuel are likely to worsen the situation.
While growing more food on the same area of land is key to increasing sustainable food production and meeting the needs of an ever-growing population, farmers should avoid intensification that relies on heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In parts of Asia, intensification has been achieved through the use of chemical inputs, but at a great cost. These inorganic fertilizers increase production in the short-term, but soils become increasingly degraded and broken down until there is very little organic matter or nutrients left. When soils are in this state, crops are unable to utilize the chemical fertilizers, which leads to low production and food shortages.
Instead, farmers can increase production and conserve natural resources by turning to agricultural intensification through agroforestry, an integrated land use management technique that incorporates trees and shrubs with crops and livestock on farms. This approach bring ecosystems, livelihoods and agriculture together. Replenishing soils, improving biodiversity and lessening agricultural pollution also decreases threats to food security and earned farming incomes – according to Sammy Carsan, a tree domestication scientist with ICRAF and lead author of a recent article on agroforestry and agricultural intensification.
Agroforestry and associated environmental services at the farm-level impact nutrient cycling, water regulation and plant and animal biodiversity beyond the individual farm. Improving the quality of natural processes promotes balancing of nutrient use and reduces inefficiencies that often contribute to pollution of surrounding landscapes. Structurally complex vegetation and biodiversity on farms are also crucial for hosting the important pollinators that are threatened by heavy agrochemical use in intensive commercial systems.
Smallholder farmers in Africa are especially affected by soil fertility declines, as they are overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture for their food and often unable to afford expensive agricultural inputs. These farmers can benefit significantly from organic fertilizers found in and around their farms. Intercropping, fallowing with nitrogen fixing cover crops and other low input agroforestry practices also reduce reliance on fertilizers and restore soils. Furthermore, agroforestry serves the important role of connecting agricultural landscapes with fragments of remaining natural forests, which provide resources and serve as a source of diversified food for these rural populations.
So what is the answer to perennial food shortages in Africa? Carsan believes “A long-term solution to intensification in Africa should not purely be based on an imported intensification model but instead consider approaches that can maintain the quality of the available resource base through ensuring nutrient cycling, organic matter build-up, biodiversity improvements and water quality regulation.” Agroforestry practices provide appropriate technologies for maintaining resilient farms and ecosystems that make up the landscapes that provide food and livelihoods across rural Africa.
Photo: Sherry Odeyo, ICRAF