FTFA works to incorporate trees into its food gardens, and crops into its small orchards

For millennia, farming has involved trees. Today, we call it agroforestry, but the concept is ancient. Trees dotted grassy pastures, offering shade and foliage to animals, while vegetable crops grew alongside shrubs and under protective canopies. But modern agriculture has adopted a “slash and burn” approach when it comes to clearing land for large-scale plantations, which is bad for the environment and long-term food security, warns Mike Pierce, Manager of the Trees and Carbon Programme for Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA).

FTFA is a leading Section 21 Non-Profit Social Enterprise that addresses food security and environmental sustainability. In the 30 years since it was established, the organisation has planted more than 4.6 million trees, many of them fruit trees. In addition to adding new trees, FTFA works to incorporate existing trees into the food gardens it establishes.

Agroforestry is a large umbrella term for farming practices which combine agriculture and trees. These practices range from having trees scattered through your veggie garden through to fields separated by tree alleys, or grazing areas blocked off by hedges. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, farms and pastures with trees in them are “dynamic, ecologically based, natural resource management systems that diversify and sustain production in order to increase social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all scales”.

“There is this misconception that in order for an agricultural landscape to function really well, and get big yields, that you can’t have trees,” Mike explains. “That they are in the way, that they are taking up space that we could use for crops. But that is unsustainable.”

Agroforestry helps retain water, halt runoff

And the scientific research agrees with him. According to a 2020 review article published in the journal Sustainability, agroforestry should be an integral part of Africa’s climate change resilience plans. “The climate of southern Africa is predicted to be severely affected by such changes,” the authors write. “With agriculture noted as the continent’s largest economic sector, issues such as food security and land degradation are (at) the forefront.”

Trees play numerous roles in ecosystems, says Mike. For example, their roots help to retain moisture and halt erosion. Soil erosion is one of the major forms of land degradation in sub-Saharan Africa with serious impact on agricultural productivity, according to a paper in the journal Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems. When monoculture industrial agriculture replaces indigenous grassland and forests, these new plantations do not have the deep root systems that allow water to penetrate the ground and hold the soil in place, thus increasing erosion.

“The trees increase water penetration and infiltration into the soil, preventing runoff and soil erosion,” Mike says.

Trees fight climate change, promote biodiversity

“Both indigenous trees and forests play an important role in helping us mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” says the African Climate Reality Project’s branch manager Amy Giliam. “As carbon sinks, trees and the planet’s forests help cool the earth by removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it within their roots, stems, leaves, and the soil ecosystem.”

“By adding trees to farm land, you can increase the ecosystem’s ability to capture carbon,” says Mike. “And, importantly, offer homes to other plants and animals.” 

Species extinctions are accelerating, and there has been a massive global decline in biodiversity, often due to changing land use and the loss of natural habitats, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Commercial agriculture is a major culprit in this biodiversity loss, however adding trees to farms is like introducing blocks of flats to a single-storey neighbourhood, creating many more additional homes.

“In a classically industrial or agricultural landscape, you have one stratum,” Mike explains. But trees introduce multiple levels, offering biodiversity niches on each one. “So suddenly you have diversity in your insect life, birdlife, and others.”

Agroforestry creates new revenue streams for farmers

Trees on farms can also add new ways of generating money, says Mike. Rather than relying on a single crop in the ground or animal-derived income source, trees can offer nuts, fruit, timber and other products, depending on the type of tree. 

Agroforestry, being such a broad concept, has many methods that can be adapted to different scenarios and plot sizes. “The concept is 100% scalable,” says Mike, adding that FTFA often incorporates agroforestry into its projects and food gardens. “You can do it in your back garden,” he says. “In all our food garden projects, we will look to include trees.”

Food forests opening doors for farmers

In another initiative, FTFA develops enterprise orchards. It currently oversees five of these orchards, which focus on “high-density orchard culture in communities to grow for local markets”, it says. These orchards yield fruit and nuts, with high-value herbs planted under the trees, but can also include some livestock.

“For example, we encourage beneficiaries to run their chickens through the orchard every few months to eat weeds and fertilise the soil,” Mike says. Not only is this good for the chickens, but also the trees. These orchards offer different types of crops and revenue streams, while creating resilience because of the variety of produce. “Trees bring many new dynamic benefits to any kind of ecosystem, particularly agricultural ecosystems.”

Donate to FTFA and help plant more trees for food security projects around South Africa.

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