EDITORIAL: Food, Fodder & Cash: That's Agroforestry

So many trees have been carved from the Earth -- more than one-third of all original forests -- and the cutting continues. In place of trees people grow crops, raise cattle, and build roads, homes and other structures. Not to mention the megatons of paper and furniture produced from trees. Yet, notes the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 40% of the Earth remains forested or woodland. Thus, a major task for agroforestry advocates and practitioners is developing land use management systems which take advantage of multipurpose trees, the heart and soul of agroforestry.

During the past 20 years, agroforestry has been seen as a means to resolve biophysical issues like deforestation and soil erosion, and socioeconomic issues like hunger and poverty. Experts have defined a role for trees that provide food, fodder, fuel, income and even pharmaceuticals. These Super Trees rise and fall in popularity but, due to inappropriate management, often fail to live up to expectations. In some case, the species choice is not suited to a site. Or the trees are monocropped, the antithesis of agroforestry. Still, they are out there growing. Some occur naturally, some are planted by people. Maybe you have planted a Super Tree or two: leucaena, neem, gliricidia, prosopis, the acacias, and eucalyptus, just to name a few.

If these trees hold so much potential, then why isn't agroforestry more pervasive? Often a specific species, or trees in general, are maligned. Some farmers say trees attract birds which in turn eat grain. But some birds eat insect pests. Researchers note that certain leguminous tree won't fix nitrogen in acid soils. Minimal inputs of lime, rock phosphate or organic matter might remedy that problem. Extensionists might point out that some Super Trees grow too slowly, like the Acacia albida. Just the same, had the slow-growing trees been planted 20 years ago, today they would be large, prolific and fruitful.

For agroforestry to be successful, we need to think in terms of the future. Farmers, researchers, extensionists and bureaucrats alike must expand their agricultural planning horizons. Certainly we want quick solutions to pressing problems, but we also want what is best for our children. A tree planted today is really for the next generation's use. If we accept that premise, agroforestry will work.

No single tree species will solve every problem known to farmers. Nevertheless, trees are phenomenal when it comes to nutrient cycling and conversion of sunlight to biomass. We cannot afford to neglect this ability. A key to success is to avail as much information as possible about agroforestry options to farmers, researchers and extensionists. Then we can all make better management decisions about integrating farms and trees.

We also need to look more seriously at policies, incentives and disincentives that affect agroforestry. In this age of structural adjustment, courage is required to propose new measures to accelerate the use of agroforestry principles. Research can contribute much to the arguments for direct aid to farmers to plant trees. If our goal is to regenerate the Earth, trees are in the formula for success.