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Tropical Staple Trees

The dominant agricultural crops are annual—planted, harvested, and replanted every year. Perennials come back year after year, with similar yield and higher rates of carbon sequestration. Many have been cultivated and harvested for millennia, and some are critical to the world’s food supply today, particularly in the tropics.

Staple foods from trees include starchy fruits such as bananas and breadfruit, oil-rich fruits such as avocado, and nuts such as coconut and Brazil. Many legumes are perennial, including pigeon peas, mesquite, and carob. Africa abounds with staple tree crops: baobab, mafura, argan, and more. These trees can take root in forest-farms, multistrata agroforestry, or intercropping systems.

Tropical staple tree crops can reverse erosion and runoff and create higher infiltration rates for rainwater. They can be grown on steep slopes and in a wide range of soils. They require lower inputs of fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides, if any at all.

Today, 89 percent of cultivated land, about 3 billion acres, is devoted to annuals. Lands converted from annuals to perennial staples sequester, on average, 1.9 tons of carbon per acre every year for decades. What’s more, perennial staple tree crops can weather and thrive under conditions that annuals cannot—vital in a warming world.


cultivated land…devoted to annuals: Toensmeier, Eric. The Carbon Farming Solution, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016; FAO Statistical Services online

carbon…[and] yield…per acre: Toensmeier, Eric. The Carbon Farming Solution, White River Junction, VT, 2016.

less fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide: Pimentel, D., D. Cerasale, R. C. Stanley, R. Perlman, E. M. Newman, et al. “Annual vs. Perennial Grain Production.” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 161 (2012): 1-9.

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p. 66

Correction: Today, 89 percent of cultivated land, about 3 billion acres, is devoted to annuals. Of the remaining land in perennial crops, 116 million acres are used for perennial staple crops.

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