By Melody Chironda

Cape Town — Climate change, combined with economic hardship is contributing to acute global food insecurity, hunger, and poverty, but solutions such as climate-resilient crops and agricultural practices raise hope.

Agriculture is facing the tremendous challenge of feeding millions of people and with extreme climatic events like heatwaves, cyclones, fires, droughts, floods and desert locust invasions, which are happening more frequently and with more severity, and are driving millions into hunger and poverty.

On World Food Day on October 16, 2021, the UN warned that the fight against hunger is being lost. It called for action to improve food security for the world’s most vulnerable people. Hunger is on the rise, driven globally by conflict, displacement, climate change, and the economic impacts of Covid-19. Among those most at risk, the UN says, are refugees and those forcibly displaced within their countries by conflict. The UN projects that hunger will not be eradicated by 2030 unless bold actions are taken to address inequity in access to food.

The agricultural sector is critical to African economies and accounts for the majority of livelihoods across the continent. But it is facing major challenges as these climate and natural disasters intensify. Farmers are adapting to sustainable farming.

Why agroforestry is a promising solution

Agroforestry is an approach to sustainable farming that is quickly spreading around the globe, transforming the way food is produced. Agroforestry is the practice of growing trees, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables together, that mimics a forest in order to sequester climate-warming carbon while feeding people and maintaining biodiversity.

As a result, the soil is stabilised by tree roots, and erosion is reduced; leaves and pruned branches from trees act as mulch which reduces soil runoff and erosion, eventually decomposing to form organic litter that enriches the soil – restoring the landscape to productivity.

The climate-smart farming system plays a significant role in ensuring the security and safety of the global food supply amid a fast-changing climate, boosting food diversity and the earning potential of farmers.

However, agroforestry is not always practical for farmers. According to Food and Agriculture Organization FAO, some key challenges include a lack of land as most have a small plot, as well as the unclear status of land and tree resources. For others, the lag between planting trees and reaping the benefits can be frustrating. More so, limited awareness of the advantages of agroforestry. Another obstacle is meeting an increase demand for goods, as well as for an expanding array of services, like water and soil conservation, and wildlife habitat.

Agroforestry requires a variety of support services, such as advice on specific practices that work with each farm’s condition, weather forecasts, and technical assistance.

Malawi is a case in point.

Malawi has battled economic instability and high levels of poverty. Poverty in the country is so critical that at least 12 million people live below the international poverty line. According to the United Nations Development Program, Malawi ranks among the poorest nations every year.

The economy is heavily dependent on agriculture.  This makes it one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and variability. In recent years, Malawi has experienced a rise in the frequency, intensity, and unpredictability of climate shocks, perpetuating a cycle of food and nutrition insecurity. The climate crisis is exacerbating problems in the country as it is already bringing dry spells, more intense and excessive rainfall, and more frequent floods and droughts, with temperatures predicted to rise by up 2.7 degrees Celsius and higher. Farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture, and the soil is low in fertility, resulting in low and variable yields.

Most of the farmers grow food for their families, but do not produce enough to trade. Now, because of climate change, many are adopting new farming methods that are proving successful.

Agroforestry alone is not a solution to the climate crisis, but its benefits make it a helpful tool to use along with other strategies. According to the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)  – a centre of scientific excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment – a number of challenges are affecting smallholder farmers in the country, such as declining soil fertility, deforestation, and forest degradation. To improve the management and monitoring of soil health in Malawi, the World Agroforestry Centre enables governments, development agencies, and farmers to utilize the power of trees to make farming and livelihoods more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable at multiple scales.

Despite the challenges, Malawi is striving to improve.

At least 65,000 farming households in Malawi have received cash payouts from an agricultural insurance programme of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) after drought and pests destroyed crops during the 2020-2021 farming season.  Lobin C. Lowe, the Minister of Agriculture, said that “most farmers in Malawi rely on rain-fed agriculture but with the surging effects of climate change, livelihoods are cyclically disrupted, and this fuels hunger. Scaling up crop insurance can enhance people’s capacity to anticipate and withstand shocks and mitigate their effects in the long run”.

WFP is working with the government and its partners to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis for vulnerable and food-insecure communities through an integrated risk management approach.  According to Relief Web, the Government of Malawi and a coalition of partners are empowering farming communities to manage their climate risks and reduce impacts of climate-related hazards. In the 2020-2021 farming season, farmers insured crops such as maize, sorghum, rice, groundnuts, pigeon peas and cotton to protect their incomes from harvest losses. Farmers accessed these policies through either paying a portion of their premium in cash or participating in building community assets such as wells, vegetable gardens and tree nurseries that help them withstand future weather shocks.

Agroforestry not only has the potential to mitigate global warming, but also to help farmers adapt to climate-change-related disasters such as floods, droughts, and unpredictable rainfall patterns. Diversifying through adding trees near crops or pastures has made a difference in Malawi. More trees also mean more organic matter, shade, and firewood, helping drive down surface temperatures and providing fodder for livestock, and producing fertilizer.

These benefits are driving agroforestry to be adopted in other African countries, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, and Zambia.