Low-hanging fruits are sometimes the sweetest: how tree-sourced foods can help transform the global food system

The global food system is dominated by a limited number of actors and mainly focusses on the production of only a handful of relatively innutritious foods. The system in its current shape threatens livelihoods of small-scale farmers, does not meet the nutritional needs of the majority of the global population, and is causing severe environmental impacts such as deforestation and biodiversity loss. A recent study shows that the elevation of small-scale tree-sourced food systems can help contribute to a transformation of the global food system that would lead to improved environmental and human well-being.

The global food system in its current form is dysfunctional and destructive. Not only does the production of a select few agricultural products that dominate the global food market require vast swaths of land, it is also leading to environmentally destructive agricultural production practices and the erosion of traditional ways of rural life and small-scale farmers’ livelihoods. Despite an emphasis having been placed on sustainable food systems within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with SDG 2 that aims to ensure food security and adequate nutrition through sustainable food systems, hunger and malnutrition compounded by climate change-related challenges are threatening the wellbeing of populations across the world. Especially the most vulnerable are feeling the effects of this intersection of global challenges that to date have been inadequately addressed. 

To reverse these trends, we need to understand what’s wrong with the current global food system and which foods have the potential to simultaneously provide environmental, nutritional and livelihood benefits at local and global levels that can drive a global food system transformation. Trees may hold the key.

What’s wrong with the global food system?

The global food system is unsustainable in so many ways. First of all, food systems occupy enormous amounts of land. This is likely to increase even further in the future: food production is one of the main drivers of deforestation, especially in the tropics. Consequences of these large-scale changes in the use of land include the loss of biodiversity that is happening more and more rapidly, substantial carbon dioxide emissions, and an increasing risk of droughts and wildfires. 

At the same time, the global food system is not producing enough fruits and vegetables to meet human nutritional requirements, partly because the current system is mainly based on just a few energy-dense and nutrient-poor crops such as wheat, rice, sugar and maize. This extraordinarily low diversity within our global food system is causing long-term health problems affecting especially the poorest populations in the Global South who have limited access to micronutrient-rich diets, education about nutrition and basic health services.

In addition, dominant food and agricultural development approaches focus on industrialisation and international trade, leading to the creation of a few global food corporations that dominate the global food market. These transnational food corporations in many cases exercise their power to undermine the rights of food workers and smallholder farmers in order to produce a limited number of crops at the lowest possible price. Food producers get only a fraction of the total amount paid for food products ranging from tea and coffee to other crops produced in the Global South and North alike. 

These developments have led to the massive transformation of small-scale and multispecies tree-based agrarian production systems (often traditional) into large-scale annual crop production. Yet these tree-based systems are vital: a recent perspective article argues that tree-based foods could play a critical role in the transformation of food systems such that it becomes more sustainable, provides more nutritious foods, and provides better livelihood opportunities for smallholder farmers.

Making space for trees…

There are many clear opportunities to incorporate food-producing trees into landscapes. The majority of global cropland does not contain trees, but has a high potential for doing so. Especially in the tropics, where large-scale forest areas are still being cleared for agriculture and then abandoned once soils are exhausted, restoration efforts could include the establishment of sustainable, locally-managed agroforestry systems. Such agroforestry systems have been shown to provide multiple environmental benefits, including carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and the provision of several other ecosystem services, especially when they are based on diverse, multi-species systems. 

This could also mean that the hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers across the world could have a more prominent role in improving local diets through the production of tree-sourced foods. With the right incentives, investments and involvement, smallholder farmers could scale up agroforestry systems to produce more and healthier food, while simultaneously diversifying their income sources and consumption. 

Yet doing so would be challenging in several ways. To make increased tree-based food production a more integral part of food systems, several challenges have to be addressed. An increased demand for certain tree-sourced products like cacao and palm oil have led to large-scale deforestation for the establishment of industrial monoculture plantations, which provide very few environmental benefits, harming biodiversity and increasing carbon dioxide emissions in the process. Thus, monoculture plantations are not the way forward – we need to combine different types of trees in one area to ensure multiple ecosystem services.

In addition, severe negative social impacts are associated with such large-scale commodity production, such as people working under abusive labour conditions. Land grabbing has also become a serious problem as the profitability of certain tree species is becoming recognized and the sector commercialised. Furthermore, for smallholders, dependency on a single commodity for their income increases their vulnerability due to risks of crop failure caused by plant diseases and sudden prices crashes. Diversified production systems play therefore an important role in securing income sources, but also in diversifying diets, especially local diets.

…and making space for smallholders

So how can we address these challenges? Strategic actions and interventions for local market development can create a context that incorporates biodiversity in food systems as examples show in Brazil. Besides, focussing on diversifying local consumption provides opportunities for production directly linked to regional skills, preferences and needs and could increase the resilience of local food systems, which has been proved important in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, production for consumption in high-income countries could in some cases provide additional income streams as in many of those countries, the willingness to pay for sustainably-produced food is higher.

Other steps to be taken to facilitate the incorporation of sustainable tree-sourced food systems into the global food system are:

  1. Securing the tenure rights of rural populations. This will allow them to make long-term investments which are particularly important since tree-crops can involve high initial costs and return on investment can take years. 
  2. Developing inclusive supply chains for potentially popular products. This is essential for rural communities to adopt diversified agroforestry systems and access markets in which realistic business opportunities to smallholders should be key.
  3. Creating diversified income opportunities by engaging in different markets through a combination of production of commodities and non-commodities, intercropping multiple tree species with annual crops, payment for ecosystem services, but also by redirecting annual crop subsidies and providing micro-credits. These will create incentives for farmers to adopt tree species in their production systems, can help alleviate high investment costs and long pay-back times, and avoids the risks of price shocks, crop diseases, and other pitfalls associated with monoculture systems. 
  4. Investing in the conservation of genetic resources that underpin diversity so that crop tree systems to flourish. Additionally, reliable seed sources and seedlings need to be available for the establishment of tree crop farms. 
  5. Guaranteeing sustainable production, which will require a combination of interventions by states, markets, and civil society across the supply chain in which consumers can play an important role in demanding and consuming sustainably produced and deforestation-free products. Sustainable food systems require radical social action to alter conventional trading and production systems.

The time is ripe

Although the scale of these mentioned challenges seems to be too complex, in the face of increased shocks from events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, transforming global food systems is not just a desirable outcome, it is urgently required to ensure greater resilience both locally and globally.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Julia Quaedvlieg is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies, where she researches tropical deforestation policies and the impact of interventions on smallholders’ livelihoods. Her research interests lie in natural resource management, rural development policies, and rural communities, with special focus on Latin American countries.

Merel Jansen is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Koblenz-Landau. Her research focusses on the sustainable use and restoration of tropical forest resources, in particular non-timber forest products. Currently, she is working on a project in which she aims to evaluate the potential of agroforests to mitigate deforestation related drought in southwest Amazonia.

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