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Part of the Agroforestry Security Programme in Malawi, supported by Irish Aid. Image: Charlie Pye-Smith
Part of the Agroforestry Security Programme in Malawi, supported by Irish Aid. Image: Charlie Pye-Smith
Image: World Agroforestry Centre via Flickr/Creative Commons

Important future of food events happening in Ireland

The agrifood industry is vital to our economy – and we’re hosting the likes of Al Gore here this month to examine hunger, climate justice and where the world goes from here.
Apr 12th 2013, 6:45 AM 6,426 10

THE AGRI-FOOD sector is vitally important to Ireland economically. Farming also dominates the Irish countryside, and plays a deep and important role in our history, culture and psyche. When money comprehensively came, late by European standards, about 500 years ago, one unit of currency was pegged to the value of a single cow.

With much of the rest of the economy in decline or stagnant, farming once again dominates many aspects of Irish life, including our environmental impact. Farming’s contribution to our overall greenhouse gas emissions is almost one-third. Our government plan to grow the sector, Harvest 2020, is both on target and likely to have a massive impact on our ability to meet environmental targets.

The value of dairy is due to grow a full 50 per cent by 2020 for example, in a country where there are already one million cows in county Cork alone. This is all without any climate change proofing of the plan, and before other sectors of the economy develop a comprehensive plan for a future that somehow combines economic growth with a reduction of Green House Gas emissions.

For their part, the government claim that Harvest 2020 is an industry plan, (“a strategic policy document”) and thus not in need of a proper environmental audit. This despite the fact that the Department of Agriculture’s logo is the only logo on the front cover of the actual document.

Meanwhile in Ireland the food bit of agri-food plods along, with obesity expanding in tandem with our waistlines in a world where chronic hunger and micronutrient deficiency persists.

In this context, and as part of our holding of the EU Presidency, Ireland hosts two upcoming internationally-significant food events.

Food Events

The Food Security Futures conference in the Burlington in Dublin – which began yesterday and continues today – and next week, Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice in Dublin Castle, on Monday and Tuesday. The latter is especially high profile, featuring Al Gore as a keynote speaker.

According to the EU presidency website “the world’s population is set to reach 9 billion by 2050, which will require a 70 per cent increase in agricultural production if everyone is to be fed. Over the same period climate change, water scarcity and land degradation could reduce food production by one quarter, leading to further increases in the number of people suffering hunger”.

Each event brings some important aspects to the table. A focus not just on climate change but climate justice has long been a call by numerous actors in the majority global south, for example. The Food Security Futures event examines the potential for food security through the overlapping lenses of climate change, public policy and resources.


I’ve spent much of the last ten years thinking and writing about agri-food and environmental issues, and the multi-faceted conundrums we face. Of all the solutions I’ve encountered thus far, agroecology in general and agroforestry in particular are perhaps the most promising. I’ve been
lucky enough to visit agroforestry initiatives in India, Africa (with Fair Trade) and Central America (with Trocaire) over the past 18 months, including the World Agroforestry Centre itself in Kenya, and have been very impressed with what I’ve encountered.

Agroforestry is simply the use of trees and shrubs as part of agricultural systems. It involves integrating these plants into systems of crop and/or livestock production. There are specific trees and scrubs that can improve both the overall ecology and the yield of the farmed area.

This includes fertiliser trees, fodder (ie, animal-feeding) trees, and trees or scrubs that attract beneficial insects, improve soil quality or water retention, and perform a number of other ecosystem services. These include pollination, carbon storage, extreme climate adaptation and nutrient recycling.

Farmer Nelson Mkwaila introduced fertiliser trees like Gliricidia in his maize and fruit fields. Image: Charlie Pye-Smith/Agroforestry Food Security Programme/Flickr.

In doing all of this, in an incredibly affordable fashion, livelihoods are diversified, food production made more resilient and lives transformed. The most marginalised people’s income, gender rights and even nutritional access improves when agroforestry techniques are taken up in the tropics.

Crucially, all of this takes pressure off forests too – if people get multiple benefits from growing trees on their farms, they don’t have to over-exploit our ever declining reserves of forests.

The benefits of agroforestry

Frank Place, who works with the World Agroforestry Centre, ICRAF, is presenting the Food Security Futures event. The paper, written with Alexandre Meyeck of the FAO, cites many examples of the agroforestry positives listed in the previous section.

The authors point out that “Since 2000, FAO has initiated special programmes for food security with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador…Agroforestry systems are promoted in the subregion as a substitute for traditional slash-and-burn systems, particularly on slopes.

“Under these systems, productivity of land and labour increased. Yields are less variable, partly thanks to better retention of moisture in the soils. The soil is also protected from hydric erosion. Farm production, including wood products, is more diversified, which stabilises incomes. As it is more efficient in the use of land, agroforestry reduces the pressure on forests. As wood is produced in the fields, these systems also contribute to preventing forest degradation.”

They continue: “Less land needed per family, (there is) increased productivity of labour and capital, better use of fertilisers, reduced soil erosion.”

The majority of marginalised farmers simply cannot afford inorganic fertilisers. And when they can, they use too little to be of any real benefit. Agroforestry greatly reduces the need for them, while not necessarily eliminating the use of them entirely. Indeed as Roger Leakey points out, agroforestry can increase productivity to the point where farmers can actually afford to use inorganic fertilisers.

In terms of hunger alleviation (about 900 million people) and combating micronutrient deficiencies (about 2 billion) the more access to trees the better the performance.

Local beneficiaries of the Agroforestry Food Security Programme in Malawi. Image: Charlie Pye-Smith/Agroforestry Food Security Programme/Flickr.

They point to forthcoming research from 21 African countries, that finds “a statistically significant and non-linear relationship between tree cover and fruit and vegetable consumption which peaks at about 53 per cent tree cover”.

In the same study, the authors also showed that children’s dietary diversity increases with tree cover for the majority of the population. “Forests and areas with tree cover may enhance vegetable intake by providing vegetables in the form of leaves and fruit from trees, but possibly also through the ecosystem services provided by trees and forests within agricultural systems, which likely support the availability of wild and cultivated vegetables by providing the microclimates needed for vegetables to grow and other ecosystem services.”

Having trees on farmed land, or having access to trees nearby, also means that women, who do most of this work, do not have to travel (as) far to collect firewood, or the food or medicinal plants otherwise far flung forests contain. This save time and is safer for the women involved, who, with tree access, also have opportunities to diversify family incomes by making products derived from trees, plants and scrubs, such as soaps and shampoos.

It doesn’t end there, there’s climate change alleviation and mitigation and a host of other positives. It’s also of course easy to overlook the fact that trees also produce the oxygen that makes our life possible.

Very positively, from an Irish perspective, it is also the case that Irish Aid are one of the best financial supporters of the World Agroforestry Centre. This work includes supporting a massive agroforestry initiative in Malawi, has had a positive impact on up to 1.3 million people in terms of food security.

The standard line on feeding the world is that we need to produce more and do so super-intensively, utilising all the agri-industrial inputs and globalised systems at our disposal. That this is not squared up to our ecological responsibilities is an unfolding disaster we are living through, from health to climate change.

Agroforestry, in the tropics but also even here in Europe, can answer an awful lot of these interrelated food and environmental questions. All we need now is the will to make it happen on a larger scale everywhere.

Dr Oliver Moore is a writer and researcher specialising in agri-food and environmental matters. His PhD is in rural and agri-food sociology. You can find more of his writings on his blog and onthe arc2020 website, where he contributes weekly and he’s on Twitter @oliver_moore.

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