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Trees, Soils, And Food Security

Pedro A. Sanchez, Roland J. Buresh, Roger R. B. Leakey

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Trees have a different impact on soil properties than annual crops, because of their longer residence time, larger biomass accumulation, and longer–lasting, more extensive root systems. In natural forests nutrients are efficiently cycled with very small inputs and outputs from the system. In most agricultural systems the opposite happens. Agroforestry encompasses the continuum between these extremes, and emerging hard data is showing that successful agroforestry systems increase nutrient inputs, enhance internal flows, decrease nutrient losses and provide environmental benefits— when the competition for growth resources between the tree and the crop component is well managed. The three main determinants for overcoming rural poverty in Africa are (i) reversing soil fertility depletion, (ii) intensifying and diversifying land use with high–value products, and (iii) providing an enabling policy environment for the smallholder farming sector. Agroforestry practices can improve food production in a sustainable way through their contribution to soil fertility replenishment. The use of organic inputs as a source of biologically–fixed nitrogen, together with deep nitrate that is captured by trees, plays a major role in nitrogen replenishment. The combination of commercial phosphorus fertilizers with available organic resources may be the key to increasing and sustaining phosphorus capital. High–value trees— ‘Cinderella’ species, can fit in specific niches on farms, thereby making the system ecologically stable and more rewarding economically, in addition to diversifying and increasing rural incomes and improving food security. In the most heavily populated areas of East Africa, where farm size is extremely small, the number of trees on farms is increasing as farmers seek to reduce labour demands, compatible with the drift of some members of the family into the towns to earn off–farm income. Contrary to the concept that population pressure promotes deforestation, there is evidence that demonstrates that there are conditions under which increasing tree planting is occurring on farms in the tropics through successful agroforestry as human population density increases.