Imagine this

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security04 Nov 2010Dennis Garrity

We are at a historic gathering. For this is the first really high-level global meeting held on the subject of creating a climate-smart agriculture. Everyone at the conference is already familiar with the challenges of doing this. What we are crying out for are solutions; the concrete pathways to action. Our task is to sort out the vision and to build a plan for investment and achievement that we can live with as a guide in the coming years.

I believe that a truly climate-smart agriculture will require a whole new portfolio of science-based technologies, a whole range of smarter farming practices, and an ability for solutions to be found and implemented across the landscape at a whole range of scales.

Unfortunately, climate-smart agriculture is such a fresh concept that neither the farming community, nor the research community, nor the other institutions influencing and supporting agriculture, have ever before given attention to it. A climate-smart agriculture has got to find ways to manage water, land, plant and livestock resources in radically fresh and unconventional ways. Not only at the farm scale, but at the landscape and ecosystems scales. In short, we need fresh, out-of-the-box solutions.

I’d like to introduce one that is uniquely suitable to Africa – and to the broader world of tropical agriculture. Unlike in the temperate areas, smallholder farmers in the tropics have always husbanded trees on their farms, and they continue to culture them for a great variety of purposes. We call this ‘evergreen agriculture’ – a form of more intensive farming that integrates trees with annual crops and maintains a green cover on the land throughout the year.

Imagine a future where smallholder farmers, and large farmers as well, practice much of their food crop production under a canopy of trees.

Imagine that these trees are not competing with the food crops, but quite the opposite. They are dramatically enhancing the yields of these crops due to their striking effects on soil fertility. These are nitrogen-fixing trees, acting as fertilizer factories in the field – providing tons of nutrient-rich biomass, year after year, with no investment cost. These trees are fully compatible with the crops because they exhibit a unique physiological trait, reverse phenology, which triggers them to go dormant at the beginning of the wet season, and drop their leaf biomass as fertilizer to the crops growing in their vicinity.

Imagine that producing food crops like maize, sorghum and millets under these agroforests dramatically increases their drought resilience in dry years, because of positive soil moisture regimes, and a better microclimate.

Imagine that these systems increase carbon sequestration above and below ground by an order of magnitude greater than the best conservation farming practices. And that during the dry season, when they are in full leaf, they provide a rich source of livestock fodder through their leaves and pods, when virtually all other vegetation has dried off and died.

This isn’t imaginary. It’s actually a system of agriculture that is already practiced today by millions of farmers in Africa. The tree is an African acacia, an indigenous species, called Faidherbia albida and cultivated by farmers across the African continent – throughout the Sahel, to East Africa, and to southern Africa – as a fertilizer and fodder tree.

I met some of these hardworking ladies last year. They were out harvesting their maize in central Malawi, where they and a half-million of their neighbours grow these acacia trees in their maize fields. They told me how they were making barely ten bags of maize per acre before they began culturing their trees – that’s about a ton per ha, the African average yield. But since they began growing these trees as an intercrop with their maize, their soils have improved to such an extent that they’ve been regularly harvesting triple their former yields, year after year, in a sustainable production system.

Trial data from dozens of scientific studies in countries all over Africa bear out what these ladies were telling us. Growing cereal crops in association with these amazing African acacias typically doubles or triples crop yields, without the application of inorganic fertilizer. And it dramatically builds soil organic matter and soil fertility over the long run; this sustains these high yields and makes mineral fertilizer applications even more efficient.

Africa desperately needs an evergreen revolution. But we’ve concluded that we must approach agricultural development in Africa differently. We’ve got to do it in ways that build on the unique circumstances of Africa’s farmers, and in ways that are affordable to them in their high-risk environment.

I believe that Africa’s evergreen agriculture will be based on the development of more intensive farming systems that integrate trees into annual crop fields, and that these ladies are the forbears of a brighter future for African food production. Fortunately, more than a dozen African countries are now working on Evergreen Agriculture scaling-up programmes, and many development partners, such as NEPAD, AGRA, IFAD, are engaged in supporting this out-of-the-box vision.

Together with the farmers, we can extend these vibrant partnerships to realize an evergreen agriculture throughout Africa, and elsewhere in the tropics. Smallholders can green and cool our planet; let’s give them the support they need to do so.