November 7, 2012

Living with the Trees of Life

Trees, a topic never too far from discussions on climate change mitigation, are also important features in agricultural landscapes. As we move from the food security and development events of the past couple of months, and into the period around the UNFCCC COP18 in Doha, trees are critical pieces to building resilience to climate change and storing more carbon in biomass. Dr. Roger Leakey, Vice Chairman of the International Tree Foundation and Vice President of the International Society of Tropical Foresters, writes on his recent book, Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture. Of particular relevance to landscape approaches, the book elucidates the role of trees within landscapes for both production and environmental outcomes.

The growing shortage of productive land for agriculture is a serious constraint on food production in the world’s most populous regions and heightens the poverty of hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers in the tropics. Currently, the approach to agricultural intensification taking place in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and the associated deforestation and loss of biological diversity, are leading to a downward spiral of land degradation and social deprivation. We need a fresh approach both to food production and the use of natural resources if we are to avoid the emerging food crises expected to impact every country in the world by the middle of this century. We need to rehabilitate degraded land, diversify farming systems, and protect watersheds.

Trees in farm land can improve soil fertility and restore the failing ecological processes that lie behind land degradation and poor crop yields. In the book I note, “from my travels seeing a wide range of different agroforestry systems, I realized that agroforestry is more than just an agronomic practice that restores soil fertility and produces tree products in farmers’ fields. It is also applied ecology or, more accurately, applied agroecology – the ecology of farming systems. This means, therefore, that it could be expected to also deliver ecological functions over and above such environmental services as erosion control, water infiltration, provision of shade, etc.”

In contrast to the current polarised debate about whether agriculture should be driven by biotechnology or organic principles, this book advocates a middle path – a simple, highly adaptable three-step generic model of agroforestry that greatly boosts food production from our Green Revolution crops. First of all is the critical step of restoring soil fertility and agroecological functions. From there we need a ‘new wave’ of crop domestication from valuable tropical tree species producing nutritious and culturally-important foods and medicines, as well as the other day-to-day needs of local people. Then a model, in which activities are done in partnership with local farmers, provides incentives to practice the more sustainable and diversified agriculture delivered by agroforestry. Marketing, processing, and value-adding of tree products in local communities can further income and business and employment opportunities.

Business as usual is not the way forwards for agriculture. Moreover, agroforestry is not an alternative to current agricultural systems, but rather, by closing the ‘Yield Gap’, is a way to enrich them and so increase food and nutritional security, increase social and environmental sustainability, generate income, and mitigate climate change. All of this greatly increases the returns that come from the huge investment in the Green Revolution.

The Convenient Truth behind all this is that we already know how to do it – indeed it has already been tested in the field and found to work. The challenge is to accept the middle path and to scale it up to a level that has real impact on both the lives of poor farmers and communities, and on the reestablishment of the biodiversity that drives a healthy planet.

Read more about Living with the Trees of Life: Towards the Transformation of Tropical on the CABI website, at www. rogerleakey.com, or on Facebook.

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