May 22, 2018

Trees for more food, improved livelihoods and a better planet

A new paper in Food Security from International Tree Foundation Vice Chairman Roger Leakey seeks to draw together some lessons from the last 25 years of his career working in agroforestry.

A breathing space yet to be filled

Unfortunately, large-scale rural development projects using trees to provide a wide array of services and products have not been accepted by international policy makers and development donors despite an academic literature that clearly shows the important role of trees in agroecology and in the lives of millions of farmers. Partly, this seems to reflect the strong promotion of the technologies of the Green Revolution package for agricultural intensification by agribusiness in which trees are viewed as a hinderance to intensive cultivation. This package has been successfully adopted in industrialized countries of temperate latitudes where the social, economic and biophysical conditions for large-scale agriculture are highly appropriate and completely different from those of the tropics and sub-tropics. Failure to recognize this difference is despite the comment by Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, that it is “a temporary solution, a breathing space, in man’s war against hunger and deprivation” (Speech at Investiture as Nobel Peace Laureate, 1970).

Trees are keystone to agroecological function

The reticence to adopt agroforestry is also linked to the failure to understand how trees both at the plot and landscape scale are the keystone to the maintenance of agroecological functions which provide numerous environmental benefits crucial for sustainable production.  In contrast, conventional agricultural wisdom accepts that there will inevitably be environmental, social and economic downsides, or ‘trade-offs’, to agricultural intensification, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics where deforestation, land degradation and perpetual poverty leave small scale farmers trapped in hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

Putting the trade-ons of trees in the conversation

To trigger a change in this mindset maybe we need to change our language and promote a deliberate and direct focus on creating ‘Trade-ons’ rather than on allowing the concept of ‘Trade-offs’ to dominate the discussion. This is the crux of my recently published paper, titled “Converting ‘trade-offs’ to ‘trade-ons’ for greatly enhanced food security in Africa: multiple environmental, economic and social benefits from ‘socially modified crops’,” which describes an unconventional approach to intensification, one which delivers numerous environmental, social and economic benefits; in addition to greatly enhanced staple food crop yields for food security. This paper calls for policies that deliberately scale-up and promote these ‘trade-ons’ through tree planting would transform the lives of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, increase biodiversity and restore agroecological functions, mitigate climate change, and boost the local economy.

I suggest that policy makers and donors should be encouraged to recognize that they could in fact focus on a very different approach to agricultural intensification, especially in the tropics and subtropics. These more complex farming systems would also open up new avenues for biological, social and economic research to understand the complex interactions between the components of diversified agricultural systems and landscapes, while also creating new less damaging opportunities for agribusiness. Finally, I submit that a focus on Trade-ons would raise the income of the African population through new local processing and business based on a wide range of tree products. This should open up trade and so boost the global economy and might even reduce international tension with the richer industrialized countries.

A farming system in Sumatra that integrates a wide range of useful tree species with staple food crops for multiple benefits (Photo: R Leakey).

A farming system in Sumatra that integrates a wide range of useful tree species with staple food crops for multiple benefits (Photo: R Leakey).

About the Author

Roger Leakey FRGS has both practical (NDA, CDA) and academic (DSc, PhD, BSc) qualifications. He has been Director of Research at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF 1993–1997) and Professor of Agroecology and Sustainable Development of James Cook University, in Cairns, Australia (2001–2006); and was a Coordinating Lead Author in the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2009). He is author of Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture (CABI, 2012) and Multifunctional Agriculture – Achieving Sustainable Development in Africa (Academic Press 2017).


Featured image by Tri Saputro/CIFOR on Flickr.

More From

Comments are closed.