Five ways agroforestry helps farmers adapt to climate change

By Kristi Foster

We know that agroforestry can provide a range of benefits for subsistence farmers. But just how does agroforestry reduce farmers’ vulnerability to climate change? New research shows at least five ways.

According to climate models, warmer temperatures, greater rainfall variability and increasingly severe and frequent extreme weather events are in store. These changes are expected to decrease agricultural productivity in the developing world, carrying a host of negative repercussions for farmers. Among those most vulnerable are people farming at the subsistence level, partly because they lack the money to invest in innovative practices.

A new study by Tannis Thorlakson of Harvard’s Sustainability Science Program and Henry Neufeldt, head of climate change research at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) explored just how agroforestry can help reduce farmers’ vulnerability, using a farmer-managed agroforestry project developed by ICRAF and located in the Nyando District of western Kenya. The study, whose results are published in the journal Agriculture & Food Security, compared two types of farmers: those who had been involved in agroforestry development projects for 2 to 4 years, and neighboring farmers without agroforestry training.

In order to understand local circumstances, the researchers combined field observations, household surveys, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews with farmers, village elders and community leaders.

The Nyando agroforestry project was still in its infancy, yet the research showed that farmers’ general standard of living benefited from agroforestry practices in a number of ways:

  1. 43% of farmers who planted trees on their land noted improved farm productivity through decreased soil erosion and increased soil fertility;
  2. 70% of farmers who took up agroforestry practices benefited from environmental sustainability, primarily soil erosion control;
  3. Households that had been involved in an agroforestry project for four years averaged 24,000 Ksh (around US$300) more in household wealth than their neighbors;
  4. 87.5% of farmers who had planted trees four years earlier experienced an increase in earnings through income diversification from the sale of tree products; and
  5. Trees provided farmers with several specific coping strategies in the face of droughts and floods.

The research captured Nyando at a time when the area had recently suffered from a drought, a flood and variability in precipitation, resulting in widespread food shortages. Household surveys demonstrated that farmers are currently unable to cope with these climate-related stresses in a sustainable way, with several coping strategies leading farmers deeper into the poverty trap.

Aware that their coping strategies might not be sufficient to combat more variable and intense climate stresses in the future, farmers feel that improving their general standard of living is the most effective way to adapt. Food security is at the forefront of farmers’ concerns and many expressed interest in increasing farm productivity, diversifying income and improving environmental sustainability.

In order to maximize the effectiveness of future agroforestry projects, the authors advocate the following:

  • Linking agriculture and agroforestry training to combine the short-term benefits of agricultural knowledge with the long term benefits of agroforestry practices;
  • Improving market access to enable income diversification opportunities through the sale of tree products;
  • Combining access to farm implements or loans with agroforestry projects, providing additional short term benefits;
  • Using farm visits to successful agroforestry projects to demonstrate the local benefits of agroforestry and increase uptake.

In light of future climate unpredictability, the capacity of agroforestry to improve farmers’ well-being across a range of climate scenarios holds particular promise. Viewed as a valuable component of a broader development strategy, agroforestry has considerable potential to help farmers adapt to the myriad climate shocks and stresses that lie in store.

Download the full article (PDF):

Reducing subsistence farmers’ vulnerability to climate change: evaluating the potential contributions of agroforestry in western Kenya

Related stories

Smallholders in East Africa are embracing climate-resilient farming

Making climate-smart agriculture work for the poor