Gliricidia sepium, a tropical shrub genus grown by the Evergreening Alliance in tropical regions. Dinesh Valke, Flickr

How evergreen agriculture could feed the world

New approach combines agriculture with land restoration

From raising vast populations of livestock to razing forests for crops, many of the ways land is being transformed for human use are a far cry from sustainable. How can this be reversed?

Capping off Climate Week NYC 2019 at the Global Landscapes Forum on 28 September, the Global Evergreening Alliance launched the Evergreening the Earth campaign to answer this question through restoring degraded lands and improving smallholder farming methods across the developing world. Ahead of the event, Landscape News spoke to CEO Christopher Armitage about the new initiative.

Could you tell us about the Evergreening the Earth campaign?

The campaign aims to sequester 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it up in landscapes every year by 2050. We have come at this from the point of addressing food insecurity in some of the most food-insecure environments in the world. The practices we are supporting and promoting enhance food production and resilience to climate change. So it is a win-win.

What is the Alliance’s approach to sustainable agriculture, and how does it fit with combating climate change?

It is mainly focused on evergreening agriculture, working with smallholder farmers to build productivity and resilience, and working with pastoralists and on the nexus between sedentary farming and pastoral agricultural systems. We’re trying to bring everyone together around some of the incredible solutions that have been emerging and the evidence that’s been amassed over recent years.

A lot of the focus came from Tony Rinaudo and his work with farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) in Niger in the 1980s. So we have a very scientifically defensible approach to reversing the impacts of climate change at a global scale using FMNR and complementary systems.

In environments with smallholder farmers, in pastoralist and rural communities, it is really something they should practice anyway, for the immediate livelihoods and natural resource benefits that they receive. The climate benefit that the world receives is really a by-product of these systems.

What kind of agricultural techniques are you referring to?

There are a number of different approaches that we are directly supporting through our programs. A lot of them are built initially on FMNR or assisted natural generation, and these are mainly in semi-arid or arid contexts. We mainly work with naturally seeded trees and shrubs or the regeneration of existing rootstock. These massively enhance the productivity of crops when the right trees and shrubs are grown within crops, increasing productivity by 300 to 350 percent.

The other thing we work on is rehabilitating degraded communal lands and watersheds, again through the collaboration of all local stakeholders with managed natural regeneration. It can be done quickly and effectively, it has a significant impact on local water tables and water quality, and it leads to a huge reduction in soil erosion.

In the humid tropics, which have slightly higher rainfalls, we work on more intensive intercropping of leguminous shrubs and trees within crops, primarily with a species called gliricidia. This is a very fast-growing, non-invasive luminous shrub that is very effective at fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere in the soil and depositing a high-nutrient organic mulch onto the soil.

Farmers who have adopted gliricidia intercropping found that they had more resilient agricultural systems and a protective layer of mulch over their soil, which prevented evaporation. The soil also absorbed more water during rainy periods and contains a lot more carbon. Those farmers had higher productivity and yields, even over bad years, than farmers using chemical fertilizers.

In Zambia, for example, it has been adopted by over 180,000 households, and along with higher yields in their maize crops, those farmers also produce five metric tons of biomass a year on average. The household can use some of that for their household fuel requirements, and the remainder can be sold at local markets.

In Sri Lanka, gliricidia has provided the foundation for a commercialized renewable energy market, with more than 20 power plants using this tree. So this is an incredible opportunity for African farmers to be able to adopt similar systems. People are planting it because they are getting better crops of maize, but the unintended by-product is a potential source of electricity.

How can this intensification of sustainable agriculture be spread?

Through our member organizations, we have the grassroots capacity to implement these at massive scales in developing countries across the globe. We have that capacity. What we don’t have is the political and financial support and resources to support that massive collaborative effort. And that’s where we’re hoping, through this global campaign, to really provide much greater visibility to these opportunities, and to come together to support solving these challenges.

So the message is: we can have a sustainable future. We can reverse the impacts of climate change, and we don’t have to do that through some exciting new technology like seeding clouds. The technology is already there. The solution is there, and it’s one that not only mitigates and reverses the impact of climate change. It is also a solution that builds the food security of the planet starting with the poorest of the poor.



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