Forests and trees underpin agriculture for food production in time and space. Most smallholder food production systems — which feed half the global population — take place in mosaics of tree cover and agriculture. Current population growth and the need to match an uphill consumption trend has not only led to intensification of farming but also expansion through conversion of primary forests for food, feed and fodder production. Growing concern about the sustainability of modern farming practices calls for a re-think of how we utilize nature for our well-being.
The rising problems of resource degradation and biodiversity loss are paving the way for research that investigates alternative ways of producing food to feed a rising population with minimal damage to fragile ecosystems. Integrating biodiversity, ecosystem service provisioning and natural resource management within landscapes that serve multiple benefits is one way of seeking increased sustainability in our food systems. The growing awareness of environmental damage has led to exponential increases in ecosystem research in the past two decades. Yet we are far from consensus and understanding of how to implement biodiversity conservation in environmental decision-making processes.
Traditional efforts toward sustainable agriculture for food security and conservation of forest biodiversity have rarely been addressed as overlapping objectives. Sustainable intensification of agriculture and other similar concepts often fail to integrate the larger natural processes that connect productive and natural components of the landscape. Biodiversity conservation, on the other hand, has been criticized for neglecting the livelihoods demands for forest products of people in conservation initiatives. Although not an entirely new concept, “landscapes approaches” are feeding into new initiatives that call for reconciliation of food production and conservation of natural capital. One step in achieving that goal is to aggregate and provide an overview of what we know about cases in which such approaches have been successful and where they failed — and for what reasons.
Making sense of the evidence
An ongoing systematic review aims to synthesize the existing evidence on how forests and trees contribute to food production and natural resource management. This will be done in the context of ecosystem services — and disservices — that either enhance or inhibit the cultivation of food.
Numerous research and development programs are already working on promoting the integration of trees within productive landscapes for a wide range of livelihood and conservation objectives. For example, work done on Tree-Based Ecosystem Approaches shows that trees in agricultural landscapes had overall positive impacts on either food, income security or carbon sequestration. Evergreen agriculture and various other forms of agroforestry have the potential to supply ecosystem goods and services in situ while decreasing the need to cut down natural forests. Additionally, knowledge gained through forestry and agronomic research is being applied by various development interventions to enhance Ecosystem Based Adaptation to Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security for communities that live in and around forests. Such pockets of evidence are available but scattered; if aggregated, they can offer a rich scientific base available to decision-makers when rethinking policies that seek to achieve food security and conservation goals simultaneously.
How you can help
Are you conducting projects testing how the presence of trees affects food production and natural resource management? Are you carrying out research on agroforestry systems, sustainable intensification, climate-smart agriculture or similar tree-based systems in the broad context of food security and nutrition? If so, contact us with relevant literature in the form of project documents, book chapters and so on. You can also get in touch with ideas on how you think this study can be made relevant for researchers, development practitioners and policy makers.