The "famine food" of trees can keep drought-hit communities alive when all other food crops fail, says Miranda Spitteler. In this week's Green Room, she argues that policy makers need to recognise the important role trees play in providing emergency food aid.
Communities living in countries most affected by food shortages have long known about the key role that trees can play in reducing the need for conventional aid
Food insecurity is a defining characteristic of life for many of the world's poorest people, exacerbated now by climate change and the rise in food prices.
Emergency food aid has been the staple of international responses to crises, such as drought and famine for decades.
However, it is much better that the emergency is addressed before it happens.
Farmer Arzouma Thiombiano from eastern Burkina Faso recalls how trees saved lives in the mid 1980s.
"Over 20 years ago, a big famine came but people escaped starvation by eating baobabs leaves and fruit," he says.
Communities living in countries most affected by food shortages have long known about the key role that trees can play in reducing the need for conventional aid.
Recognition of this by the West, and practical support for a localised tree-based solution is urgently needed.
Food for through
Widespread droughts across Africa have devastated crops this year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 30 countries around the world are in crisis and require help from overseas.
The effects of climate change are making droughts more of a norm than an exception. This is a pattern that places some of the most vulnerable communities in an increasingly precarious position when it comes to meeting basic food needs.
In Burkina Faso in West Africa, malnutrition affects nearly 40% of the rural poor. Climate change is further impacting on already fragile agricultural lands, and high food costs are affecting people's health.
By the time shortages and hunger in countries like Burkina Faso reach "emergency" levels and warrant aid; families, communities, agricultural practices and lands will have suffered greatly.
The G8 summit held in Italy at the beginning of July pledged $20 billion to support indigenous food production to alleviate the need for such emergency food aid.
What is missing from this pledge is any mention of the key role that trees can play.
"Conventional" crops are often not native and require expensive inputs, significant irrigation and land preparation in order to produce a successful harvest.
Food from trees can provide vital nutrition when other food crops fail
This means that they are more vulnerable to droughts. For smallholder farmers in Africa's drylands, a failed harvest can mean months of malnutrition and hardship.
Trees, on the other hand, often survive when other crops fail. Commonly seen by the West as "famine foods", tree foods already form a significant part of daily diets across rural Africa.
Trees provide fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, sepals, even sap, which can all be used as food.
Take Moringa oleifera - its leaves have more beta-carotene than carrots, more protein than peas, more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more potassium than bananas and more iron than spinach.
Data shows that nursing mothers produce more milk when they add Moringa leaves to their diet.
The leaves can be dried and eaten during the hungry period, and animal fodder from trees is also vital in producing milk and meat.
This existing localised "emergency relief", is what the G8 funding must seek to strengthen.
The fight against hunger - especially in drought-hit times - must target those at the epicentre of world poverty - smallholder farmers in rural Africa.
It is time for the value of trees to be recognised at all levels internationally
They need support to adopt agro-forestry techniques, which boost soil fertility and provide tree food crops to supplement nutrition. They need the right environment to invest in their land, the ability to share information, and modest support at grass roots level.
Training and support can help villagers earn money from things that grow on trees.
This income can give them food-purchasing power when crops fail, and access to vital services, such as healthcare and education.
This approach can increase self sufficiency for both rural communities and national economies. It can increase environmental security, diversify livelihood options and reduce the vulnerability of poor households to climate change and external shocks.
It can bring real, sustainable long-term returns.
In Dongo, a village in Burkina Faso, Tree Aid's Village Tree Enterprise project aims to help villagers generate income from tree products. All the participants are women.
One of their husbands explained: "During the last drought period, when my granary was empty, my wife's income contributed more than 50% of the household's income."
Projects like these provide communities with the skills and support to manage their trees. They enable people like the group in Dongo to improve their own resilience to drought, crop failure, and higher food prices.
It is time for the value of trees to be recognised at all levels internationally.
Groups like the G8 must make a commitment to developing the enormous potential of agro-forestry. In so doing they present a joined up approach to resolving two of the key issues facing the world today.
They will simultaneously alleviate poverty and food insecurity for people who need it most, while tackling the impact of climate change by encouraging the protection and planting of trees.
Miranda Spitteler is chief executive of TREE AID
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Miranda Spitteler? Are trees overlooked as food sources? Should the international community do more to promote the use of trees and their produce? Or do trees take too long to reach maturity to make them a sound investment?
Trees take a bit long to mature,but one's they get mature they will give you food sorce for a longer period of time, stops soil erosion in dry land, and retain water underground
Noel Borg, Marsaxlokk Malta
We should not just be thinking about using trees for resources for places like Africa/India. There has been a group in the US who have been developing what they call woody agriculture for 20 years based around Hazel nut and Chestnut trees. They make a strong case for the advantages of using this sort of agriculture worldwide. www.badgersett.com for those interested.
Ann, Watford UK
I'm an artist working across agencies to develop a 1,000 year project, 'Trees of Grace: the Destiny of Species', to transform the Mersey Basin into an 'analogue forest', with Ginkgo Biloba as the 'keystone' species of tree. Ginkgo are 270 million years old, provide food and medicine, and have managed to survive a few changes in climate.
David Haley, Ulverston, Cumbria, UK
Famine comes with drought,with drought comes soil erosion by wind and when the drought breaks erosion by rain. Trees help to feed humans in times of drought, Moringa with it's deep roots is fantastic, Trees (ipil-ipil, Madre de Cacao,etc) are used to keep livestock alive during the droughts, trees act as nutrient and water pumps bring water and nutrients from deep soil to the suface, trees feed the soil and act as mulches both directly on the soil and at a higher level helping retain a moist environment...Trees, trees trees oh and they consume Co2. Keep planting. We practise a form of agro-forestry here. Nations need to plant now to help protect the future.
Ben Hodges, Dipolog, The Philippines
Too often trees and forests are laid waste in times of crisis. Trees need security too and they need it in a steady and ongoing basis. It's as though the wisdom and logic of ages is periodically laid aside in times of insecurity. The oaks which helped mankind evolve and weather the storms of lean times as civilizations came to be need to be essentially replanted for lean times to come. Perhaps a worldwide effort could be made to have a greater percentage of land to be titled to local people and communities for their protection. Forests that sustain biodiversity and trees that can provide sustenance in times of need should retain surface rights to breath the air and use the water just as strongly under law as law dealing with mineral rights has enjoyed all these years because forest preservation truly benefits the common good in a most fundamental way.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA
Too true that trees are underlooked as a source of helping areas throughout the world to escape famine that has come into being for one reason or another...
The fact that in many areas of the world the art of knowing what has been able to be harvested from one type of tree to another has been lost...
Far too quickly our do-good act of charity of providing food has helped the knowledge of self-reliance in many areas of the world to gradually become extinct after a couple of generations...
President Obama's remark that Africans need to be given assistance to be able to grow their own food...instead of being provided it - this from the new world leader is the right approach...
Yes - we may have to send food-aid for a period of time; but, even more a YES is the fact that being given the ability to grow food and being able to select food from nature's larder is the long term approch that we have to look at...
Miranda is right...trees are here for far more than timber...
Martin Swift, Alloa, Scotland.
originally ,i am f rom eritrrea and have lived in ethiopia. both countries suffer from similar food insecurity problems. i have witnessed all the emergency drought assistance since my birth. i know that food assistance was donated since 1960. all food assistance focussed on short term. wheat' corn or any other grain was distributed and the situation and the affected population demanded m more aid next year or time. i saw nobody helping the people grow useful trees. the cattle die during the drought period due to lack of food for there is no one to provide food for the animals. if half of the finances were allocated for tree planting projects it would have been possible to save the animals and help the farmers to survive the hardship and use the cattle proceeds to start up their activities for the next season. thus trees are an important element an agricultural development. the aid agencies have for the first time got the right track and let every one who has the means come!
to the aid of the organizations that encourage tree planting in drought susceptible areas of ,africa. trees can tolerate one year's droght. more research should be geared towards discovering and distributing drought resistant and edible trees such as avocado banana dates etc.
girmai kahsai , houston texas united states
To even need to say "what jolly good things trees can be . . . " !?
We need all of it - trees, biodiversity; every creepy crawly; the works; all of it. To even need to ask the question is the scary bit ??
But the problem isn't planting trees; I have left a trail of acorns, ash, hazel, lime, and conkers along my walks for most of the last 25 years.
The problem is; where do you plant trees ?!
The trees were in the way when we wanted the land to dump "mega-agriculture" down on fragile ecosystems ?
Now suddenly we are supposed to magic up room for a couple of brand new Amazon rain forests out of thin air ?
We didn't have room for the trees we had. We are sure as heck not going to make room to replant them now ?
So the "eminent scientists" have put all the seeds in a tunnel, locked away under ground ?
Perhaps there should be a sign on the door; "will the last person alive please let the plants out . . "
Steven Walker, Penzance
You can be absolutely certain that despite the dual benefits identified in this article (tackling climate change & addressing food crises) that our leaders will completely ignore all logic and do nothing. Except, of course to meet in another posh venue in years time to decide that we are not able to do anything.
Justvisited a graveyard close to home and planted a few trees in a corner out of the way. I think we can all do the same and in our own small way contribute to to the fight against climate change.
Shafiq Islam, Bradford, UK
If Tree Aid wants to convince the powers that be of the role of agroforestry then they should simply point to the use of trees in Europe for similar reasons. Major examples are Chestnut, Ash, Oak (in particular Q. ilex var ballota), and Juniper (Juniperus thurifera in particular) have been and still are used extensively both for food and fodder during the summer and autumn around the Mediterranean. Returns are quite fast once established, if not for the above uses for fuel.
yes, trees can feed a person sometimes...how many trees are needed to feed a number of persons ? what acreage is needed to support the trees ? how much water is needed ? can other crops or animals share the land of the trees ?
I applaud the excellent and down to earth work that Tree Aid are doing. I wish that more of grandiose pledges that the world's leaders made turned into on the ground financial assistance for practical and effective organisations such as Tree Aid.
Matt Prescott, Oxford
Ms Spitteler is quite right on all counts, and I'm dismayed by the slowness of policymakers such as the G8 to catch on to this vital issue. There are umpteen reasons for promoting under-utilised tree crops -- which need not take long to yield food, as opposed to timber - but the problem is often a failure to reach the "grass roots". The international community could do much more to support measures to encourage tree-planting and reverse the depletion - especially of "old forest" indigenous trees -- that accompanies human development. In the Gambia I met Boubacar Mbye, known as Mbye Garden for his diligent promotion of community agro-forestry through his "Stay Green" foundation, and while his work was inspiring, it was heartbreaking how little support and recognition such initiatives get. I'm following up some of these ideas on a tiny scale on land I've bought in West Africa, and learning from research by Claire Madge and others (including my Gambian wife) about poorly-unde!
rstood and undervalued indigenous crops. The magnificent Baobab - to use just one example - makes a fantastic reviving drink and a nutritious ice-cream....
Peter Verney, Hebden Bridge UK
I think miranda is correct. Trees are clearly over looked as all of our natural food groups. And as such more should be planted.
Louise Durber, Nottingham
The logic of Miranda is flawless. It's right that trees take to long to gain maturity whereas crops give results in few months time. Most of the farmers live in my country believe in traditional approach. They are dependent on rain water for their crops and most of the occasions they are at loss. These people must be taught and motivated for the tree based fruit farming. Lot of research and market oriented skills are required to be generated to create the environment what Miranda is advocating. With the forests shrinking and the planet warming up, it's crucial to keep the environmental requirements at primary level. It's not a 'choice' it's a 'necessity'.
Urban people buy fruits directly from the market. We must explore the possibility of joining these people with some small schemes so that initially they can invest some amount and in the later stage they can get the fruits directly from the farmers.
Revenue generated from carbon markets must be utilized to push these types of schemes.
Initially some efforts work some doesn't. But in the long run it is going to give excellent results.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India
Trees not a sound investment?
How long will it take for people to see that the world needs longer-term solutions to the problem of feeding everyone?
Yes shorter-term projects are necessary as well, but as far as I can see the sooner a good tree-planting scheme is started the better.