Understandably, nutrition has become an important component of food security efforts. It is estimated that 34 million kids under age five suffer from severe acute malnutrition, and that 1 million of those die each year. A stunning 161 million of children under five are stunted leading to lingering health issues, cognitive impairment, and reduced productivity in adulthood. The good news is that this is a decrease from 199 million in 2000. The bad news is that at this rate, we will not come close to eliminating stunting by 2030.

But, there is still reason for optimism. Here’s one data point to consider -- A recent study of 21 African countries found that children living closer to forested areas had better diets and consumed more fruits and vegetables than those who lived in deforested areas.  And that’s why our bet is on agroforestry as the best link between agriculture and nutrition.

Advocates, researchers, and implementers have struggled to establish a productive link between agriculture and nutrition. The most direct one is the biofortification of foods to increase nutrient content. Think biofortified cassava and yellow rice. This is a valid option if these foods are widely accessible to the urban and rural poor. Others believe that by simply raising smallholder productivity, increased family incomes will be used to augment the caloric and nutritional content of the family diet. Still others advocate for projects that help women grow kitchen gardens to supplement family meals.  All of these approaches are the ones currently capturing the attention of governmental and non-governmental donors and implementers.

Unfortunately, agroforestry, or what some call mixed farming systems, is an approach that has not received the attention it deserves, especially considering its benefits, and its role in food security has been undervalued and underfunded.

When trees do come into view, it has been almost solely around preventing deforestation and reclaiming where it has occurred, largely in the context of addressing climate change. While this is indeed a worthy project, there needs to be greater focus on the value of integrating trees into farming operations as tools to improve productivity, protect the soil, and increase farm income and resiliency.

Agroforestry can have its greatest impact on smallholder farmers. In Africa, smallholders are eking out a living on often less than 2 hectares of land. Many have a hard time making it through the hungry season – that period before the first harvest when hunger reaches its peak. With limited incomes, these families are unable to purchase enough nutritious foods to maintain health.

Integrating trees into farms provides numerous benefits for incomes, farm yield, soils, and water resources.

  • Trees can provide poor farmers with a resilient adaptability to environmental stresses and periods of low productivity, often because they will grow and produce even while other crops are failing.
  • Planting trees that produce fruit, nuts, and fiber can augment farm income.
  • Fruits and nuts provide additional nutrients and diversified diets

But trees serve an additional use on the farm.

  • They provide cover for crops requiring some shade for higher yields.
  • They work as wind breaks protecting crops and soil.
  • Some trees replenish the soil with nitrogen thereby improving soil quality and reducing the need for inorganic fertilizers.
  • Trees reduce soil erosion, help maintain soil moisture, and increase the rate of water infiltration, thereby reducing the effects of drought.

Despite these qualities that we have known about for some time, research dollars have declined and current U.S. programs do not provide a clear vision for the role of agroforestry in food security programs. Feed the Future has no real agroforestry component. Except for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Agroforestry Center, both part of the Center for Global International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system, and some work by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there is little support for research. Even more alarming is a lack of attention to incorporating agroforestry into extension services and food security programs such as Feed the Future. This is an unfortunate and unnecessary disconnect between food security and agroforestry that needs remedied.

If our bet that agroforestry can help us eliminate hunger and malnutrition pays off, here’s what needs to happen --

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should create a Feed the Future Innovation Lab for agroforestry.
  • USAID should review Feed the Future country strategies for ways to incorporate agroforestry.
  • The National Institute for Food and Agriculture at USDA should study what aspects of agroforestry can best contribute to food security in developing countries.
  • Universities with agroforestry programs should be encouraged to apply for research grants from the newly created Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.
  • The United States needs to increase its collaboration with foreign universities, some of which USAID helped to stand up in previous decades, in order to extend our knowledge of mixed farming systems in diverse environments.

We think that eliminating hunger and malnutrition is a bet worth making and doing it through agroforestry is a great way to get there.

The Lugar Farm in Indiana includes about 200 acres of Black Walnut trees in addition to corn and soybean. Purdue University’s forestry and natural resources farm was renamed the Richard G. Lugar Forestry Farm in November 2014.  

Former U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar serves as President and Chairman of the Board of The Lugar Center. Dr. Connie Veillette is a Senior Fellow in global food security and aid effectiveness at The Lugar Center.