As seen on AlertNet

By Chelsea Diana | 26 March, 2013 at 3:00 PM 


A farmer climbs on an acacia tree to collect gum arabic in the western Sudanese town of El-Nahud, Dec. 18, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

With a projected 2.4 billion more people to feed by 2050, how can we meet the need for more farmland to satisfy growing food demand while protecting the diversity of the world’s forests?

The answer may lie in agroforestry, which is the practice of planting trees on cropland and its edges, according to Tony Simons, director general of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

“We need to grow as much food in the next 40 years as we made in the last 8,000,” Simons told AlertNet. “There’s a need to recognise greater investments and actions in sustainable farming.”

Cocoa farmers have one crop per year which equals just one paycheck, Simons said. If the crop isn’t good, a farmer still needs to find cash flow and farm supplies for the rest of the year.

“We need consumer awareness of the fragility of many of our farming systems,” Simons said in a Skype interview with AlertNet on Mar. 21, the first annual International Day of Forests.

To raise awareness and bring agroforestry practices to smallholder farmers, ICRAF works with governments, private foundations, international organisations and regional development banks.   

Forming partnerships is one way of sharing out finance more fairly – otherwise each actor often expects to get 75 percent of the programming, which doesn’t add up, Simons said.

Since the early 2000s, ICRAF has been using a model that brings together public and private partners, such as Unilever and Mars, which aims to ensure funds are spent on what donors care about, as well as making distribution more transparent, Simons said.

With this model, ICRAF has set up agroforestry programmes in about 30 countries since 2004.

“International markets need more than government pledges,” he said. “If we had the private sector funding parts they’re more concerned about with inspection and delivery, governments and small-scale farmers would rely less on illegal exports and world governments can be more involved in certification of goods.” 


ICRAF is passionate about agroforestry, not least because of its contribution to water and food security.

“From biophysically humid forests in Brazil, to arid areas in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel – mixed systems where you have one or two rainfalls a year – nothing is better than a tree at bringing water up from depth,” Simons said.

With more than 70,000 different types to choose from, ICRAF encourages farmers to plant trees that produce fruit, timber, biodiesel, fertiliser and rubber, providing food and income through the year.

The organisation is also pushing farmers to plant the Allanblackia tree, especially in Tanzania and Ghana.  It is indigenous to the rainforests of West, Central and Eastern Africa.

For the past several years, efforts have been underway to commercialise the vegetable oil it produces, which offers a healthier alternative due to its high content of unsaturated fat. The oil is naturally solid at room temperature, but melts in the mouth, Simons said, which means it can be used for margarine.

“Food chemists describe it to me as you’re a renaissance painter and never had red paint and now someone gives you the pigment,” Simons said.

The problem is that if you grow Allanblackia from seed, it takes 10 years to fruit. But to speed up the process, ICRAF is training smallholder farmers in how to accelerate growth so it yields fruit after three or four years.


The aim of ICRAF’s programmes is not just making a one-off investment but also helping communities adopt agroforestry for the longer-term, Simons said.

ICRAF helps them set up plant nurseries, often in schools, churches or other existing institutions, where it can teach local people which seeds to plant, how to speed up growth and how to use the trees to produce goods.  

But farming communities interested in agroforestry must show the initiative first – for example, by establishing a local nursery with private backing.

“A handout is only going to last a few years,” Simons said.

The nurseries expand smallholders’ skills and show young people that they can still make a living from farming in the modern age.

“Most people view trees as a Christmas tree, (and we) need to push (the message) that trees are not just for Christmas,” Simons said. “We’ve got to find smart ways of using our planet in a much more sustainable way.”  

Chelsea Diana is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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