SUPPORT is urgently needed for small-scale sustainable farming to tackle the twin challenges of increasing demand for food and climate change, according to a worrying new report by leading agriculture and global development experts.They warn that without decisive action there could be catastrophic consequences for millions of people across the African continent – including major food shortages, child malnutrition, increasing poverty and unplanned mass migration.
But the authors also point to the remarkable success of carefully targeted agroforestry projects, which are starting to re-green dryland regions – and they stress that if the right policies are supported, there can still be cause for optimism. According to the report, The Farms of Change: African Smallholders Responding to an Uncertain Climate Future, increasing demand for food, water and energy from a growing population and climate change are two of the greatest challenges of the 21st Century. Agriculture and smallholder farmers are central to both, perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa. Whilst progress has been made in the last two decades to reduce hunger, climate change jeopardises these gains.
The outlook for African farmers, already battling against the impacts of climate change, is deeply concerning. At the same time smallholder farmers can also be agents of change. With the right support, farmers can drive sustainable agricultural development that builds resilience and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But farmers need enabling policies and incentives to invest in environmental services, preserve biodiversity, sustainably manage land and water, and use energy efficiently.
The report calls for donors and governments to boost investment to avoid problems that would have disastrous results for African development such as major food shortages, increased child malnutrition, unplanned migration, food price hikes and exacerbated poverty.
Ten priorities are identified including:
- More investments in sustainable farming systems are needed to adapt to climate change and to generate mitigation co-benefits in order to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers
- Investments should be directed towards interventions that sequester carbon in the soil such as agroforestry systems and better land use practices
The Importance of Trees
A striking feature of discussions at the launch was the frequency with which panelists and audience returned to a familiar theme – the importance of trees in African agricultural landscapes.
While the report stresses the importance of agroforestry in sequestering carbon (in soil as well as trees), Camilla Toulmin gave a more tangible multi-faceted example. She described the vital role that crop-tree-livestock systems play in the Drylands of the Sahel region, including one species in particular Faidherbia albida. This acacia-like leguminous nitrogen-fixing tree, which grows throughout Africa, has the remarkable property of producing its foliage during the dry season. This provides nutritious fodder for the livestock that gather in its shade. Early in the rains it sheds its leaves to fertilise growing crops. She had a note of optimism about the ‘extraordinary re-greening’ that is starting to take place in parts of the Sahel. ‘Legumes offer huge potential as part of more diverse agricultural systems – and that includes tree legumes.’
A second theme was the importance of people’s rights. It is vital that governments confirm rural people’s rights not just over their own land but over the wider landscape, including their right to be involved in the sustainable management of forests. Without secure rights it is difficult if not impossible for farmers to invest in trees and soil health and make the best use of the rain that falls.
A third recurrent theme was the continuing importance of the links between research institutions and agricultural extension services. Well-resourced extension services play a vital role in supporting farmer innovation and investment and ensuring that research organizations genuinely respond to farmers’ needs.
These themes resonate strongly with all the projects supported by ITF’s Sustainable Community Forestry Programme, our Africa Drylands Programme, and our larger-scale projects in Malawi (the Nkhata Bay Natural Way) and in Mali (Trees 4 Livelihoods). Their work is not easy, but it is encouraging to know that the community-based projects we support are at the frontline of addressing the huge combined challenges of food security and climate change.
 2016 has been designated by the United Nations as International Year of Pulses – leguminous food crops. 2015 is International Year of Soils.