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Originally Published on the Center for Humans & Nature, January 31, 2020

Years ago, the late German physicist Hans Peter Duerr—wearing a huge grin—reminded me that “in biological systems there are no parts, only participants.”[1] And, today, the climate crisis reminds all of us of this truth—as well as enables us to see avenues for healing our planet that have, too long, been hidden from view.

Almost fifty years ago, tackling the roots of hunger to write Diet for a Small Planet, I was forced to widen my vision: rejecting the then-dominant notion of hunger as the consequence of quantitative lack and coming to see hunger as a predictable outcome of unbalanced power relationships—those actively creating hunger out of plenty.[2] Now, to meet the UN’s ten-year deadline for cutting carbon release, I again realize we must all see with new eyes: moving from a frame of separateness to an ecological worldview of connectedness, as Hans Peter had done. It’s not enough to think in terms of staying within nature’s limits. Our goal as a species must be aligning ourselves as participants with the rest of life.

For example, as we mobilize to stop fossil fuels’ great harms, we need not let this essential focus blind us to the flipside of the carbon equation: the multiple, life-enhancing ways we can enable the Earth to store more carbon. That challenge is all about relationships, both with nature and with each other. A key piece in that essential rethinking is our conception of how we feed ourselves.

Additional carbon—potentially captured by restoring degraded farm, forest, and pasture lands—along with other earth-centered mitigation, could by 2050 offset carbon equal to more than half of 2018-level carbon emissions, reports the Global Evergreening Alliance.[3] One 2013 study estimated that introducing ecological farming, including cover crops and agroforestry (trees and crops in the same field) throughout the EU holds the “technical potential” to sequester 37 percent of 2007 EU carbon emissions.[4]

For climate and so much else, today’s crisis began with a shift in perception, this one destructive as the industrial revolution—and more recently what became known (misleadingly) as the Green Revolution—unleashed corporate-controlled, chemical agriculture. In it, farming was reduced to four steps—clear, plant, cut, remove—in which soil became more substrate than living entity to nurture.

Some consequences? Farming is contributing to the degradation of a third of soil worldwide to the point that, by one estimate, a mere sixty years of healthy soil remain.[5] Moreover, agriculture, forestry, and other land use now produces nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, reports the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[6]

We can, however, reverse this damage, and some of the world’s poorest farmers are showing us the way using more sophisticated approaches to growing food and providing fuel in which our lives improve as we help cool the Earth. Instead of climate culprit, through these practices, agriculture is a piece of the climate cure.

In this learning, Africa is key.

From the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, famine and the African Sahel were conjoined in my mind. In that period, one hundred thousand people died of starvation, and Niger, now the world’s poorest country, was hard hit.[7,8] But when the rains finally returned, another way of being with the earth began to emerge; and since that tragic time, Niger’s farmers have rehabilitated millions of acres by carefully managing the natural regeneration of 200 million trees—sequestering carbon, improving soil fertility, and often doubling crop yields, as well as providing livestock fodder and firewood—all ensuring food security for 2.5 million people.[9, 10] Niger’s progress—led by small farmers together making and enforcing rules—has been celebrated as perhaps the largest regreening transformation in all of Africa.

First, though, a change in perception was required.

French colonial powers in this region of West Africa had long dictated that trees were property of the state. Farmers could be fined, or even jailed, for messing with them—thus separating trees in the minds of farmers from anything positive. “Even if farmers understood the benefits of trees, they weren’t ‘theirs,’ so they felt no responsibility to protect them,” agroforestry-expert Tony Rinaudo of World Vision Australia explained.[11] Many thought it was “better to cut and benefit from the trees on my own land, than to allow somebody else to do so,” he said. Thus, between the 1950s and 1980s, in defiance of government decree, farmers almost totally wiped out trees (and shrubs, too).[12]

“A change in mindset began in 1984,” reports Rinaudo, whose work helped trigger the shift, earning him the nickname “forest maker.”[13] Widely heard radio news of deforestation was followed by severe famine in Niger’s Maradi region—creating a link in farmers’ minds between drought (and hence hunger) and the loss of trees.

At the same time, the international NGO Serving in Mission launched a food-for-work program that required communities to try a different approach: Encourage regrowth of trees right in their fields.[14] The practice is called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration.[15]

Lo and behold, farmers discovered that their crops did better when growing among the trees. Trees reduce wind damage, abet rainwater filtration, and cool the soil, lessening evaporation. Plus, trees provide wood for cooking and building, as well as to sell. For village women burdened with having to walk miles to find enough wood, this handy supply was a huge boon.

Farmers had several favorite species they liked to regenerate on their land. One, the gao (Faidherbia albida) has particularly advantageous traits, including a vast root system stabilizing the soil and thus reducing erosion as well as drawing nitrogen from the air and fertilizing the soil. Also, unusual for local trees, the gao drops its leaves during the rainy season, allowing more sunlight to reach crops just when they most need it. Yet, reports Rinaudo, it still casts a low but beneficial shade in the searing conditions of the African Sahel. Gao-nourished soil also holds water better, particularly helpful in drought years.[16] And in the dry season when there’s little fodder for livestock, gaos provide them nourishing seedpods.

Also helpful to this transition, the government’s stance towards trees evolved.

Even after Niger won independence in 1960, its Forestry Service continued confiscating “illegally harvested” wood products from farmers, suppressing a much-needed income source, reports Rinaudo. Finally, though, in the late 80s, the Maradi district forestry department allowed for an experiment: It began permitting farmers to harvest wood from trees they regenerated on their land.

Although they still lacked formal rights to trees in the Maradi region, the change enhanced farmers’ sense of control, enabling the natural regeneration approach to take off. According to Dennis Garrity of the Global EverGreening Alliance, today such farmer-led regreening is also taking off in four nearby countries: Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal.[17] Together with Niger, these four countries now benefit from 52 million acres of agroforestry—about 17 million in Niger and 35 million spread across in the other four countries.[18] Garrity stresses, however, that the Sahel is “still one of the highest risk regions of the entire world, with temperature rising 1.5° over the last thirty years and due to rise by 2° C by 2035 and by 3°–5° C by 2050. Yet poor farmers are taking much more control of their lives.”[19]

Roger Leakey, another world authority on agroforestry, sees nearby Cameroon’s agricultural progress as offering even bigger lessons.[20] He calls the approach “multi-functional agriculture.” In Cameroon, agroforestry isn’t brand new: Even ten years ago, nearly five hundred dispersed communities were on board. With as many as one hundred and twenty trees per farm, crop yields doubled or tripled. But Leakey underscores that several additional steps were necessary before agroforestry could help lift communities out of poverty. Villagers collected germplasm from the many fruits and vegetables that they had in prior times gathered from forests. Then, with help from scientists at the World Agroforestry Center, they were able to create tree nurseries, selling selected cultivars from trees with the most desirable traits. This creative effort generated new economic opportunities.

This hunger-busting, carbon-storing, income-generating approach has transformed lives, enabling members to invest, for example, in water “standpipes,” greatly improving community health. No wonder, Leakey reports, more youth are remaining in their communities instead of migrating to cities; and a few are returning to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Beyond Africa, agroforestry is also taking root in several Asian countries.[21] And, on the other side of the Earth, agroforestry is progressing, too. In early 2019, Mexico’s government allocated $786 million to an agroforestry jump-start, the Planting Life Program.[22] Placed, interestingly, within the Secretariat of Well-Being (not agriculture) Planting Life is designed for regions rich in biodiversity but where family incomes fall “below the line of rural well-being.”[23]

The goal is greater long-term prosperity for almost a quarter million farmers on small plots by enabling them to plant 2.5 million acres of fruit and timber trees while also maintaining the traditional “milpa” practice of growing a variety of crops in the same field. Its first phase is ambitious: The government will invest in farms, covering 1.4 million acres, each to receive $262 each month as well as plants, supplies, tools, technical support, and training to fulfill the plan.[24]

And north of the border?

Here in the US, tribal communities historically practiced agroforestry, and today organizations such as Savanna Institute are facilitating its spread.[25] Plus, research at the US Department of Agriculture promotes it.[26] The University of Missouri houses one of the world’s leading centers contributing to the science underlying agroforestry, the Center for Agroforestry, established in 1998.[27]

My farmer friend in Missouri, Molly Rockamann, Founding Director of EarthDance Organic Farm School in Ferguson, has gained a lot from the Missouri Center’s research—for example, an approach to agroforestry that her farm uses called “alley cropping” (i.e., crops growing between rows of trees).[28] “When we bought the farm,” Molly told me, “the first thing we were excited to do was plant a ton of fruit trees on it.” After only seven years, more than two hundred trees now enrich this fourteen-acre farm in a St. Louis suburb, becoming my US model for how agroforestry can work on a small scale.

So, to prevent climate catastrophe, let us restore degraded soil and allow trees to flourish—enabling the poorest of our Earth to gain in power and dignity. For these reasons and more, we can replace the still-too-dominant image of successful farming: No longer envisioning vast chemical-dependent monocultures, but fields alive in crops and trees, participating together in the service of life.


[4] Aertsens, J., Nocker, L. D., & Gobin, A. (2013). Valuing the carbon sequestration potential for European agriculture. Land Use Policy, 31, 584–594. doi: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2012.09.003

[18] Gray Tappan, United States Geological Survey, personal communication, 2018.

[19] Campbell, M. M., Casterline, J., Castillo, F., Graves, A., Hall, T. L., May, J. F., … Zulu, E. M. (2014). Population and climate change: who will the grand convergence leave behind? The Lancet Global Health, 2(5). doi: 10.1016/s2214-109x(14)70021-x

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