Agro-forestry: Missing link in nutritional, food security discourse

HARARE - At a glimpse, Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands region seems lush and verdant.

But a closer check depicts a land degraded by overgrazing, unsustainable cropping practices, deforestation and wild bush fires.

Still, some plots teem with biodiversity; crops grow under the shades of banana; avocado and cassava trees while here and there, you find mango, orange and timber plantations.

Expansive tea plantations march uphill, virtually without interlude except for the towering indigenous musasa trees which form formidable barriers either side.

In the deep valley beneath, Pungwe River raucously wanders through its boulder-littered channel as it concocts its exit path from Zimbabwe into neighbouring Mozambique, where it immediately assumes new identity.

Ordinarily, this might appear to be a natural forest, but it is in fact the fruit of agro-forestry — the growing of trees with crops.

Agro-forestry is the management and integration of trees, crops and livestock on the same plot of land and can be an integral component of productive agriculture. It may include existing native forests and forests established by landowners.

It is a flexible concept, involving both small and large-sized land holdings.

Agro-forestry is widely believed to be the best model in trying to achieve the delicate balance between the environment, social and economic factors associated with food and nutrition security.

Improving people’s livelihoods and environmental conservation are often considered conflict-loaded opposites, especially in view of an increasing global population as well as economic progress in developing countries.

Finding ways to combine both is a major goal of the modern world and as such, novel approaches to integrate both are being developed constantly, as former ones seem to have failed.

One example is the ecosystem services approach, which focuses on the goods and services humans receive — mostly at no cost — from nature.

Farmers practicing agro-forestry typically benefit from multi-crop harvests while at the same time nurturing a more productive and sustainable farming ecosystem.

It helps the land to regain its fertility; fertile soil is crucial to meet the world’s ever-growing food demand.

With the human population expected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050, agro-forestry is one of the agricultural systems which Zimbabwe should invest in as it is able to enhance natural resources while also increasing productivity.

For instance, leguminous trees pull nitrogen, a nutrient critical for plant growth, out of the air and release it into the ground.

These nitrogen-fixing trees are often used in agro-forestry systems and in organic farming as well.

A 2014 study found that incorporating increases the productivity of degraded land, resulting in an increase in crop yield of between 89 and 318 percent.

It also found agro-forestry improves soil structure and increases drainage, especially during wet periods.

For instance, authors found that in eastern Zambia and Zimbabwe, steady-state infiltration rates were 42 to 600 percent higher when maize was rotated with leguminous trees compared to monocultures of maize.

Time to water runoff was also longer by 40 to 133 percent, and drainage was improved by 88 to 900 percent.

Also underlining the importance of agro-forestry in modern agriculture is the fact that nearly 870 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment, 827 million of which are in developing countries, according to statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO advises that by 2050, food production should increase by 60 percent to meet projected demand.

This comes at a time when food price is globally raising, making poorest people even more food insecure.

WHO figures also indicate that, with the exception of North America and Europe, the average world daily fruit consumption is under the WHO recommended daily intake, meaning that fruit-based agro-forestry should be the primary concern of any government in the world.

Millions of people depend on trees to increase the nutritional diversity and quality of their diets.

“When correctly designed and implemented, agro-forestry practices enhance food security by supplying direct food, providing shade, allowing diversification of crops, supporting animal production, improving soil fertility and crop productivity, diversifying and enriching diets and providing goods and products that increase incomes and access to food; agro-forestry practices could play a crucial role in helping millions of people escape poverty, hunger and environmental degradation. Particularly in developing countries such as Zimbabwe, agro-forestry can thus play a crucial role in enhancing smallholder farmers’ livelihoods by strengthening the pillars of food security,” said Innocent Hodzonge, executive director for leading environment management organisation, Environment Africa.

“For example, maize grows well under nitrogen-fixing acacia trees found in hot, dry areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, allowing farmers to increasingly practice agro-forestry. This is because crops grow better under trees than they do in the open, because shade reduces soil surface temperatures. Also, tree roots work as hydraulic pumps, bringing water up from as deep as 20 meters below the soil’s surface, making it available for crops even when it’s not raining,” he said.

Agro-forestry and Food security expert Reckson Matengarufu, who is also project manager for a local organisation, Practical Action, which specialises in assisting communities develop sustainable agricultural techniques in Manicaland and Matabeleland South provinces said agro-forestry mimics “what you would find in a typical forest, because you find at least three distinguished structures of diverse species which are all growing in an optimum manner”.

From a rural farmer’s perspective, he explains, the strength of agro-forestry is that different plants supply different products at different times of the year, providing an extra source of income when the farmers’ expenses are high, plus food and medicine, among other goods.

“Here, conventional high-input modern agriculture often fails to deliver food security and sustainability, and people are often in need of income generation from products not controlled by international trade. But this agricultural system benefits more than food security in the tropics: it also helps to curb deforestation, preserve cultural diversity and fight climate change,” he said.

Roger Leakey, a global agro-forestry expert and author wrote in a recent article; “I personally define it as a way to create an agro-ecological succession by planting trees. This means that by planting trees you start to create the microclimate that will allow all sorts of wild organisms to inhabit the soil, and the above-ground habitats, and so to start to create a more functional ecosystem within the farm.”

But while debate on agro-forestry vis-à-vis food and nutrition security has been raging in popular academia and related fields for a long time, government appears to be only just awakening.

This means as a country, Zimbabwe already finds itself lagging behind other countries such as Kenya, Zambia and Namibia which have taken the lead in implementing this climate-smart agricultural practise.

This is despite the fact that Zimbabwe is a signatory to the New Delhi Global Agro-forestry Agreement of 2014, at which United Nations member states committed themselves to expedite the highly beneficial farming practice.

However, early this year, Environment, Water and Climate minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri launched the national fruit-based agro-forestry programme in Guruve and appealed to the private sector to join hands with government in implementing the programme.

Ironically, Zimbabwe relies on importations to meet its daily fruit requirements and the high cost of fruits has meant that they do not make part of many Zimbabweans’ dinner tables.

Daily consumption of fruits such as apples, pears, pineapples and vitamin-rich pawpaws are actually seen as a sign of opulence when they should ordinarily be a daily nutritional requirement.

In a recent interview, Muchinguri-Kashiri said her ministry had targeted to specialise in fruit trees, with the aim of mitigating effects of climate change while at the same time producing locally those fruits like apples, pears and others which are currently being imported from South Africa.

“We are also going to pursue the programme on agro-forestry. We agreed as a country that we do now not want to import fruits given our very ambitious land reform programme. We have already planted 10 million seedlings of citrus fruit trees which shall be distributed around the country soon. So I am really going to pursue that,” she said.

It is, however, yet to be seen if the private sector would be coming on board as well to save the situation.

Presently, only the Friends of The Environment (FOTE), an affiliate of the funeral services firm, Nyaradzo Group has come on board to full effect.

Its approach might as well be the panacea to the challenges.

FOTE, a non-profit making trust, is making use of awareness campaigns to appeal to human conscience with regards to the dangers of felling trees indiscriminately as well as the need to plant as many trees as possible.

They complement this effort by establishing nurseries across the worst affected areas. It is from these nurseries that FOTE gets its tree saplings to support its re-greening initiatives.

But without much support from the corporate sector, which is haemorrhaging, owing to the illiquid market conditions, independent conservationists, just like government, are in a quandary as to how to speedily implement the noble cause.

To make matters worse, the non-governmental organisations which had really taken the initiative head-on appear to be also in a crisis due to lack of funding as donor fatigue settles in.

Mutengarufu argues that the best model would be to make use of indigenous knowledge and concentrate on indigenous trees.

“To this day indigenous people are the major practitioners and innovators of agro-forestry; they have been practicing it for millennia, and have passed their knowledge from generation to generation, refining and adapting their systems through practice and observation. Also, indigenous trees such as the marula and mutamba which are disappearing from the natural forests tend to do exceptionally well unattended as compared to the exotic trees,” he said.

Ecological studies have shown that agro-forestry groves stabilise micro-climates and aid soil structure and fertility. Mixed planting also reduces runoff because it reduces soil exposure. This in turn regulates groundwater levels. Trees on agricultural lands, as agro-forestry is sometimes termed, have the potential to contribute to climate change mitigation while improving livelihoods and incomes and providing invaluable ecosystem services at the same time.

The World Bank estimates that globally 1,2 billion people depend on agro-forestry farming systems, especially in developing countries. However, trees on agricultural lands are not considered in the greenhouse gas accounting framework of the IPCC.

A team of researchers from various institutions in Africa, Asia and Europe carried out a study to assess the role of trees on agricultural land and the amount of carbon they have sequestered from the atmosphere over the past decade.

The study, entitled Global Tree Cover And Biomass Carbon On Agricultural Land: The Contribution Of Agro-Forestry To Global And National Carbon Budgets looks at biomass carbon on agricultural land both globally and by country, and what determines its distribution across different climate zones.

“Remote sensing data show that in 2010, 43 percent of all agricultural land globally had at least 10 percent tree cover, up from eight percent in the preceding decade,” wrote Robert Zomer of the World Agroforestry Centre, lead author of the study.

“Given the vast amount of land under agriculture, agro-forestry may already significantly contribute to global carbon budgets.”

Cultivating a wider variety of tree species makes fruits available year-round, during the hunger gap and allow encountering the nutritional needs of people food accessibility economic access to food through income generated by the production of agro-forestry products.

Food system stability ecosystem services performed by trees thus enhance the resilience of food production systems, also supporting staple crop yields food use providing food for home consumption, as well as charcoal and wood fuel for proper processing and cooking of food, health medicines for self-treatment; more nutritionally balanced diets; well-being; easy access to resources; provision of ecosystem services and incomes.

Experts contend that actions required to increase the role of agro-forestry in supporting food and nutrition security include promotion of agro-forestry as an investment; increasing access to credit and technology and making full use of agricultural extension services and insurance.

Promoting agro-forestry through enabling policies; appraisal and reform of unfavourable regulations; guaranteeing land and tree tenure to small farmers as well as elaboration of new agricultural policies that acknowledge the role of trees in rural and community as well as strengthening access to markets for tree products are some of the proposed measures that could promote agro-forestry.

Comments (1)

Yes, there is a huge role for indigenous trees, especially for traditional foods, in agroforestry systems. They can be developed as new crops using simple horticultural techniques. This has been very successful in Cameroon. I have written widely on this experience

Roger Leakey - 2 November 2018

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