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Food insecurity is a defining characteristic of life for many of the world's poorest people, exacerbated now by climate change and the rise in food prices. Emergency food aid has been the staple of international responses to crises, such as drought and famine for decades.

However, it is much better that the emergency is addressed before it happens. Farmer Arzouma Thiombiano from eastern Burkina Faso recalls how trees saved lives in the mid 1980s. "Over 20 years ago, a big famine came but people escaped starvation by eating baobabs leaves and fruit," he says.

Communities living in countries most affected by food shortages have long known about the key role that trees can play in reducing the need for conventional aid. Recognition of this by the West, and practical support for a localised tree-based solution is urgently needed. Widespread droughts across Africa have devastated crops this year.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 30 countries around the world are in crisis and require help from overseas. The effects of climate change are making droughts more of a norm than an exception. This is a pattern that places some of the most vulnerable communities in an increasingly precarious position when it comes to meeting basic food needs.

 In Burkina Faso in West Africa, malnutrition affects nearly 40% of the rural poor. Climate change is further impacting on already fragile agricultural lands, and high food costs are affecting people's health. By the time shortages and hunger in countries like Burkina Faso reach "emergency" levels and warrant aid; families, communities, agricultural practices and lands will have suffered greatly.

The G8 summit held in Italy at the beginning of July pledged $20 billion to support indigenous food production to alleviate the need for such emergency food aid. What is missing from this pledge is any mention of the key role that trees can play. "Conventional" crops are often not native and require expensive inputs, significant irrigation and land preparation in order to produce a successful harvest.

This means that they are more vulnerable to droughts. For smallholder farmers in Africa's drylands, a failed harvest can mean months of malnutrition and hardship. Trees, on the other hand, often survive when other crops fail. Commonly seen by the West as "famine foods", tree foods already form a significant part of daily diets across rural Africa.

Trees provide fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, flowers, sepals, even sap, which can all be used as food. Take Moringa oleifera - its leaves have more beta-carotene than carrots, more protein than peas, more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more potassium than bananas and more iron than spinach. Data shows that nursing mothers produce more milk when they add Moringa leaves to their diet.

The leaves can be dried and eaten during the hungry period, and animal fodder from trees is also vital in producing milk and meat. This existing localised "emergency relief", is what the G8 funding must seek to strengthen. The fight against hunger - especially in drought-hit times - must target those at the epicentre of world poverty - smallholder farmers in rural Africa. They need support to adopt agro-forestry techniques, which boost soil fertility and provide tree food crops to supplement nutrition.

They need the right environment to invest in their land, the ability to share information, and modest support at grass roots level. Training and support can help villagers earn money from things that grow on trees. This income can give them food-purchasing power when crops fail, and access to vital services, such as healthcare and education. This approach can increase self sufficiency for both rural communities and national economies. It can increase environmental security, diversify livelihood options and reduce the vulnerability of poor households to climate change and external shocks.

It can bring real, sustainable long-term returns. In Dongo, a village in Burkina Faso, Tree Aid's Village Tree Enterprise project aims to help villagers generate income from tree products. All the participants are women. One of their husbands explained: "During the last drought period, when my granary was empty, my wife's income contributed more than 50% of the household's income."

Projects like these provide communities with the skills and support to manage their trees. They enable people like the group in Dongo to improve their own resilience to drought, crop failure, and higher food prices. It is time for the value of trees to be recognised at all levels internationally.

Groups like the G8 must make a commitment to developing the enormous potential of agro-forestry. In so doing they present a joined up approach to resolving two of the key issues facing the world today. They will simultaneously alleviate poverty and food insecurity for people who need it most, while tackling the impact of climate change by encouraging the protection and planting of trees.  

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