Overstory #262 - Twelve Principles for improved food security

DSC00725A young kokum (Garcinia indica) fruit, an example edible and medicinal crop suitable for participatory domestication to improve rural livelihoods.

Agriculture faces a very complex set of social and biophysical issues associated with the economic, social and environmental sustainability. This paper examines the role of perennial species, especially trees, in the attainment of improved staple crop yields; provision of nutritious traditional food; the reduction of poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation; the improvement of rural livelihoods; as well as the mitigation of climate change - all with increased economic growth with a programme of Integrated Rural Development (Leakey, 2010; 2012a/b). It therefore provides a model, or policy roadmap, for the delivery of the sustainable intensification of productive tropical and sub-tropical agriculture which is pro-poor and multifunctional – i.e. enhancing agriculture economically, socially and environmentally (Leakey, 2012a). This paper is based on 12 interconnected Principles (Box 1).

Box 1: Twelve principles for improved food security within Multifunctional Agriculture and enhanced rural development


Ask, do not tell


Do not throw money at farmers, but provide skills and understanding


Build on local culture, tradition and markets


Use appropriate technology, encourage diversity and indigenous perennial species


Encourage species and genetic diversity


Encourage gender/age equity


Encourage farmer-to-farmer dissemination


Promote new business and employment opportunities


Understand and solve underlying problems: The Big Picture


Rehabilitate degraded land and reverse social deprivation: Close the ‘Yield Gap’


Promote ‘Multi-functional Agriculture’ for environmental/social/economic sustainability and relief of hunger, malnutrition, poverty and climate change


Encourage Integrated Rural Development


Principle 1. Ask farmers what they want, do not tell them what they should do.

As the human population has grown, shifting cultivation has become less and less sustainable as deforestation has made new productive land scarcer. One consequence of this has been that farmers have been forced to become more sedentary. With this their crop yields have declined and farmers have struggled to feed their families, let alone generate income from surplus production. These families have therefore becoming increasingly trapped in hunger, malnutrition and poverty and are in need of help and substantial policy reform to free them from the circumstances that they are in. The problem originates with the advent of colonialism and the industrial revolution, because there has been a tendency for leaders in developed countries to think that agricultural developments that have worked in the temperate zone must be applicable in the tropics; despite big differences in the climate, soils, ecology and socio-economic conditions. As a result agricultural policy in developing countries has often been based on a model that is not well adapted to local conditions.

Principle 2. Provide appropriate skills and understanding, not unsustainable infrastructure.

Many agricultural and other rural development projects provide funding for communities to implement new and ‘improved’ technologies – often ones based on concepts which are ‘foreign’ to the farmers. While the funds are flowing these projects can be successful, but very often when the project comes to an end the new approaches are not sustained. Typically this is because the stakeholders are still dependent on a continuing stream of finance, but this is often exacerbated by a lack of ‘buy-in’ to the new approach. To try to overcome these problems the work reported here first asked farmers what they wanted and then, once that was agreed, went on to assist by providing skills and understanding through training, but without direct financial assistance. Thus project funds were spent on training and mentoring the participating communities with only the provision of minimal facilities. Then, as the concepts were adopted and the programme grew, these facilities were improved by both donor funds and by community contributions. In this way, pilot village nurseries grew into Rural Resource Centres staffed by village members with support from local NGOs and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) (Tchoundjeu et al. 2006, 2010; Asaah et al. 2011). This has been found to be an effective strategy for the dissemination of agroforestry innovations (Degrande et al. 2012).

Principle 3. Build on local culture, tradition and markets.

In the past, tree products were gathered from natural forests and woodlands to meet the everyday needs of people living a subsistence lifestyle. Non-timber forest products gathered from the wild in this way have played an important role in the lives and culture of local people, as is recognized by the study of local flora (e.g. Abbiw, 1990) and ethno botany (Cunningham, 2001) With the application of intensive modern farming systems this resource has declined. To rebuild and improve this useful resource the concept of tree domestication for agroforestry was proposed in 1992 (Leakey and Newton, 1994) and subsequently implemented by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) as a global initiative from 1994 (Simons, 1996). Great progress has been made in the first two decades of this initiative (Leakey et al. 2005; 2012) which have encouraged local entrepreneurism in the processing and marketing of agroforestry tree products. This has had beneficial impacts on farmers’ livelihoods (Tchoundjeu et al. 2010; Leakey, in press a).

Principle 4. Use appropriate technology and indigenous perennial species.

Principles 1 and 3 mentioned the relevance of indigenous trees and their products to tropical and sub-tropical farmers. To capture, harness and improve the flow of benefits from these trees recent approaches to their domestication have focussed on the large opportunity for genetic selection and clonal propagation as horticultural cultivars. This is based on the capacity of vegetative propagation to capture and fix desirable traits, or combinations of traits, found in individual trees (Leakey and Simons, 2000). This approach to clonal propagation also has the benefit that selected trees can be propagated from mature tissues so that the cultivar has a lower physical stature and early fruiting - making early returns on effort and the harvesting of fruits easier.

The simplest technique for mass clonal propagation is the rooting of leafy stem cuttings. Studies over the last 50 years have greatly enhanced the understanding of basic principles for robust and efficient techniques (Leakey, 2004; in press b), as well as the development of simple, low-cost propagation systems for implementation in remote village nurseries without access to running water and electricity (Leakey et al. 1990). With only a little training, these propagators made from locally available materials have been widely and successfully adopted around the tropics by unskilled and illiterate farmers and have opened up the opportunity to develop improved clones/cultivars of over 50 tree species for local planting, as well as for sale to others. Without this appropriate technology participatory tree domestication would probably not have been possible.

To assist the marketing of tree products (especially nuts), simple, low-technology tools are being developed for nut cracking and the pressing of oil from nut kernels (e.g. Mbosso et al. in press). These are labour saving, better for large scale processing and safer than many tradition methods, such as the use of a machete to extract kernels.

Principle 5. Encourage species and genetic diversity.

Of the 20 000 plant species producing edible products only about 0.5 percent have been domesticated as food crops, yet many have the potential to become new crops through the implementation of participatory domestication; indeed research is already in progress in over 50 tree species (Leakey et al. 2012). Adding new crops to small farms reduces risks from crop and market failures, as well as playing an important role in the re-building of agro-ecological functions on degraded farm land (Leakey, 1999b; 2012a). In environmental terms, the diversification with long-lived perennial plants is important because it is the way to rebuild the ecological functions of agro-ecosystems and landscapes.

Principle 6. Encourage gender and age equity.

In many rural communities around the world, women in particular have been engaged in gathering, using and marketing tree products. One of the purposes of a participatory tree domestication strategy is to ensure that all members of the community, whether male or female, are empowered by the programme and the beneficiaries of the outputs of their own initiatives and labour. This has been found to enhance the livelihoods of the community members in general and promote social and gender equity (Kiptot and Franzel, 2012), with exciting long-term benefits for youths (Leakey and Asaah, 2013; Degrande et al. 2012).

Principle 7. Encourage farmer-to-farmer dissemination.

Through the development of Rural Resource Centres as the hubs of participatory tree domestication there has been a steady growth in the number of communities (from two to over 450) and number of people (from 20 to over 10 000) becoming engaged in participatory tree domestication as satellite nurseries have been developed in the areas around the Rural Resource Centres (Tchoundjeu et al. 2006) - a process which in continually expanding (Asaah et al. 2011). Much of this has been word-of-mouth neighbour-to-neighbour dissemination, but in addition efforts have been made for longer distance dissemination by community-to-community visits, fairs and competitions, as well as stories in the national media.

Principle 8. Promote new business and employment opportunities.

As mentioned earlier, local markets often exist for traditionally important food and non-food products from trees. Thus local knowledge and acceptance of the products is good. Again as mentioned, through the application of the ‘ideotype’ concept (Leakey and Page, 2006), tree domestication enhances the quality, uniformity and marketability of these products as clonal cultivars, selected for commercially desirable traits, stimulate a quantum leap in the marketability of the products. This means that traders and wholesalers can purchase a large volume of uniform, high quality product from a recognized and named cultivar. In return, hopefully the producer will receive a higher price, as it is clear that consumers are willing to pay more for the more desirable varieties. To ensure that these price benefits are passed back to the small-scale community producers, the development of trade associations, business partnerships and agreements are essential (Lombard and Leakey, 2010).

Principle 9. Understand and solve underlying problems – the Big Picture.

Over the last 60 years, agricultural intensification has resulted in substantial gains in crop and livestock production. However, these benefits have come with a high environmental cost and only marginal improvements in reduced poverty, malnutrition and hunger in developing countries.

An analysis of the cycle of land degradation and associated social deprivation recognizes that the cycle is driven by a desire for security and wealth, which in turn drives deforestation, overgrazing and unsustainable use of soils and water: all of which cause agro-ecosystem degradation (Leakey, 2010, 2012a). In farmers’ fields this is seen as soil erosion, breakdown of nutrient cycling and the loss of soil fertility and structure. The consequence of this degradation is the loss of biodiversity, the breakdown of ecosystem functions and the loss of crop yield. Low crop yields result in hunger, malnutrition, increased health risks and a loss of income, all of which are manifest as declining livelihoods and so return the cycle to a desire for security and wealth.

Principle 10. Rehabilitate degraded land and reverse social deprivation: Close the Yield Gap.

To be productive, conventional approaches to modern agriculture typically require large inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization and, in dry areas, irrigation. However, the dependence of this type of agriculture on income and financial capital makes it inaccessible to hundreds of millions of poor farmers due to their high cost and local availability. As it is clear that cutting more forest down for agriculture is not an acceptable option, it is crucial to find ways of making degraded land productive again. Unfortunately, agricultural research and development has focused more on increasing potential yield than on addressed the cycle of land degradation and social deprivation that creates the Yield Gap.

Principle 11. Promote ‘Multi-functional Agriculture’ for environmental/social/economic sustainability and relief of hunger, malnutrition, poverty and climate change.

Multifunctional agriculture, as described by International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) (McIntyre et al. 2008), has the objective of simultaneously promoting the social, economic and environmental benefits of farming systems. In other words, agriculture is very much more than just the production of food.

Agroforestry is particularly relevant to the delivery of multi-functional agriculture as it addresses: (i) environmental issues: (a) soil fertility management, (b) the rehabilitation of degraded farming systems, (c) loss of biodiversity above and below ground, (d) soil and watershed protection, (e) carbon sequestration and (f) energy needs through the provision of wood fuel; (ii) Economic issues: (a) income generation through trade in useful and marketable tree products, (b) the creation of business and employment opportunities in trade and valueadding through the processing of tree and non-tree products and (c) the creation of new cottage industries for diversification and enrichment of the rural economy; (iii) Social issues: (a) lack of gender equity and the need for community empowerment, (b) urban migration, (c) poverty and health related problems, (d) loss of cultural identity and of Traditional Knowledge, (e) loss of food sovereignty, (f) the lack of income for better education and training, provision of essential skills, and (g) the lack of income for community projects such as the supply of potable water, community infrastructure developments, transport, etc.

Principle 12. Encourage Integrated Rural Development.

So far, we have seen that agroforestry has two important roles in the development process relating to agriculture and the rural economy: i) it provides techniques for the implementation of a highly adaptable set of three steps for the closure of the Yield Gap that includes value-adding within the marketing of a wide range of indigenous tree products from mixed farming systems, and ii) it is a delivery mechanism for intensified multifunctional agriculture. While these are big steps towards more sustainable rural development, they need to be set within an even wider context in which agroforestry and multifunctional agriculture are part of a regional programme of integrated rural development.

Sustainable intensification

Currently, there is great interest internationally in seeking ‘sustainable intensification’ (Garnett and Godfray, 2012; Garnett et al. 2013). This paper presenting 12 principles for achieving both better and more food from mature perennial agro-ecosystems seeks to contribute to this debate and illustrate how the domestication of indigenous trees producing high value products, such as traditional foods and medicines, can be a catalyst for sustainable and integrated rural development. This paper also emphasises that an important strategy within this approach to sustainable intensification is the implementation of steps to restore productivity to degraded land and close the Yield Gap and meet the needs of a growing human population without the need for further deforestation (Leakey, 2012a). Clearly, the challenge for the future is to scale up the application of the principles outlined here to have meaningful impact on national, regional and global scales.


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Original Source

This article was excerpted from the original with the kind permission of the author and publisher from:
Leakey, R.R.B. 2014. Twelve Principles for Better Food and More Food from Mature Perennial Agroecosystems. In: Perennial crops for food security - Proceedings of the FAO expert workshop 28-30 August, 2013, Rome, Italy, Batello, Caterina, Len Wade, Stan Cox, Norberto Pogna, Alessandro Bozzini, and John Choptiany (Eds.). Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3495e.pdf


Professor Roger Leakey is a former Director of Research at the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF, 1993-1997) and Professor of Agroecology and Sustainable Development of James Cook University, Cairns, Australia (2001-2006). He is Vice President of the International Society of Tropical Foresters and is Vice Chairman of the International Tree Foundation. He holds a number of fellowships in learned societies, universities and international research centers. He was a coordinating lead author in the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which was approved by 58 governments in an intergovernmental plenary meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa in April 2008. This assessment examined the impact of agricultural knowledge, science and technology on environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development worldwide over the last 50 years, and suggested that to meet these challenges agriculture has to advance from a uni-functional focus on food production and to additionally embrace more environmental, social and economic goals - i.e. to become multifunctional. To advance agriculture in this direction, the author initiated what has become a global program to start the domestication of wild fruit and nut trees that were the staple diet of people before the Green Revolution raised the profile of a few starch crops. This involved the development of some robust horticultural techniques that can be implemented in remote corners of the developing world, as well as some basic studies of the biology of potential food crops that are unknown to most of us.


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