We’ve already discussed the importance of tropical forests to mitigating the effects of climate change: though these beautiful ecosystems cover just 5% of the Earth’s surface, they store as much as one-quarter of the world’s carbon. This awesome ability is the primary reason the Drawdown Organization ranks tropical forests #5 on its top 100 solutions to reverse climate change. Beyond their power as carbon sinks, however, tropical forests have a lesser-known proactive role to play in sustainable food security.
Conventional agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly 20% of all CO2 emissions between 2000-10. Finding “climate-smart” agricultural solutions that simultaneously address food security and climate change are therefore imperative. One of the most promising solutions involves tropical staple trees, or trees found in tropical zones whose fruit or nuts are staple crops. Drawdown lists them as #14 on their top 100.
Why Tropical Staple Trees?
One of the pillars of climate-smart agriculture is the shift from annual to perennial crops. Perennials are plants that live at least two years, with seasonal spurts of growth and dormancy. Their root systems grow deep and wide into the soil, storing large quantities of moisture and carbon and even preventing soil erosion by literally holding soil in place.
In contrast, annuals are planted, grown, harvested, and die within a year. Such quick yields are the primary reason that grains like wheat, corn, and rice have been dominant staple crops since hunter-gatherer societies first began to settle down and harvest at least 12,000 years ago. Annuals still make up two-thirds of global agricultural land — about 2.5 billion acres.
Unfortunately, the very rotational nature of annuals that makes them attractive as foodstuffs has led to sustained environmental damage. To protect annuals as they grow, farmers must clear weeds and other vegetation. Even when using non-toxic methods like hoeing and plowing (as opposed to weedkillers and other herbicides), breaking up the soil destroys valuable nutrients and disrupts valuable microbial systems. As those same fields lie fallow between growing seasons, the soil falls prey to wind and water erosion, releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.
Because perennial crops can be harvested without destroying the plant (or the planet!), they epitomize the synthesis between mitigation and adaptation goals that defines “climate-smart” agriculture.
This is particularly true of tropical staple perennials, since their carbon storage potential and sheer variety are greater than temperate forests (#12 on Drawdown’s Top 100 climate solutions). In addition, tropical forests are home to many populations for whom food security and land rights will be increasingly precarious.
What Are the Challenges Associated with Tropical Staple Trees?
Some tropical staple foods are as American as apple pie. If you’ve ever eaten a banana, coconut, date, avocado, or chocolate, you’ve enjoyed a tropical staple. The full range of tropical staples, however, reaches far beyond these global foods. Ever heard of safau? How about akee and pequia?
I jest, but this lack of familiarity is a primary obstacle to increasing the 1.2 billion acres currently devoted to perennial crops worldwide. As Eric Toensmeier, adjunct lecturer at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and permaculture expert, notes, we all gravitate towards foods we’re familiar with and are less likely to try new things; that’s why he suggests we start embracing more far-flung tropical staple foods by feeding them to livestock wherever feasible.
Other challenges to increasing the popularity of tropical staple trees—and thus replacing annuals with perennials—are more daunting. Significant lag times — as much as 3-5 years — separate the planting and harvesting of tropical staples, delays that are difficult for subsistence farmers who depend upon each harvest for their livelihood to manage. Some foodstuffs are difficult to harvest as well, requiring skilled manual labor and thus hostile to machinery.
Mostly, however, these staple crops tend to be, in Toensmeier’s words, “long-lived, no-till, and low-maintenance”. Many of them, in fact, have higher yields than annuals even when growing naturally rather than carefully cultivated like most agricultural products.
How to Increase Your Bumper Crop of Tropical Staple Trees
You may not easily find peach palms or breadfruit at your local supermarket, but you can ensure that the tropical staples you can find locally are ethnically-sourced.
Focus on buying foods that are certified organic and fair-trade. The Rainforest Alliance’s “little green frog” certification represents a gold standard in environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa, for example, comes from farms that contain diverse shade canopies that emphasize native species to enhance biodiversity and prioritize natural alternatives to pesticides. They also do great work with palm oil, banana, coffee and tea, and even cattle farmers. You can also donate directly to the Rainforest Alliance to support its work more generally.