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How agroforestry can improve agriculture and combat climate change

How agroforestry can improve agriculture and combat climate change

Like many regenerative and regenerative agricultural practices, agroforestry is a new term for an old concept.

Cultures around the world for centuries have relied on traditional land-use practices that tie trees, crops, and livestock together. This intersection provided critical access to food, fuel, medicine, and other necessities.

Modern agriculture has stifled agroforestry for decades in favor of monoculture. Fortunately, this is starting to change as farmers, landowners in livestock ranches, and rural communities around the world reintroduce the practices into their operations.

There are many reasons, financial, environmental and other, for adopting agroforestry. It is also increasingly seen as an important part of the fight against climate change.

But what does it entail and who should exercise it?

Read on for a quick guide to all things agroforestry.

So what exactly is agroforestry?

The United States Department of Agriculture defines it as “The deliberate combination of agriculture and forestry to create productive and sustainable land use practices.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is getting more specific, calling agroforestry “A collective name for land use systems and technologies where perennial plants (trees, shrubs, palms, bamboo, etc.) are intentionally used in the same land management units as agricultural crops and/or animals, in some form of spatial arrangement or chronology.”

The common element here is the presence of trees (and shrubs) in growing crops and livestock. However, agroforestry is much more than just trees. Through various practice approaches (see below), they can enhance food security and incomes for farmers and rural communities while protecting and restoring biodiversity and wildlife at the same time.

As World Agroforestry (ICRAF) notes, “Most trees have multiple uses, including cultural uses, and usually provide a range of benefits.” Agroforestry seeks to harness these uses for the benefit of people, animals, and the planet.

Silvastor with pantyhose. Image credit: USDA’s National Agroforestry Center

What are the different types of agroforestry?

The Food and Agriculture Organization lists three main types of agroforestry systems:

  • Agrisilvicultural Combine crop and tree systems. Alley cultivation is one such example.
  • Silvopastoral systems Combine forests and graze pets on pastures or farms.
  • aGroslevostoral Systems that integrate trees, animals and crops.

There are several methods of agroforestry within these systems:

alley farming It involves planting agricultural crops between rows of trees or shrubs. Some examples include hay among pecan trees or wheat among chestnut trees. The idea is to provide income to farmers while the trees mature.

Sylvastore It is the practice of managing trees and grazing livestock on the same land. Trees can save Timber, fruit, nuts and animal feed. They also provide shade and shelter for animals, reducing stress from heat, cold winds, and heavy rain.

windbreak They are linear plants of trees and shrubs to protect crops, animals, and soil from snow, dust, wind, and other elements.

riparian forest stores They are natural or recreated areas along rivers and streams made up of grasses, trees, and shrubs. These areas can intercept agricultural runoff before it pollutes the water and also help prevent erosion. Trees and shrubs may produce a harvestable crop that provides farmers and landowners with additional income.

ForestryHigh-value crops such as herbs or mushrooms are produced under the canopy of managed forests which can provide the ideal level of shade plants need.

global agriculture, also called “dynamic agroforestry”, involves arranging groups of plants so that they can develop into productive systems that do not require inputs. It is often seen as process-based agriculture rather than input-based agriculture.

Agroforestry Deployment Project in Kentucky. Image credit: Posted. [Disclosure: AFN’s parent company AgFunder is an investor in Propagate.]

How can agroforestry help agriculture?

The benefits to humans, animals and the earth are numerous. Among other things, agroforestry can:

  • Providing additional income to farmers, ranchers and landowners
  • Protect animals, humans and crops from extreme weather events
  • carbon sequestration
  • Keep agricultural runoff away from streams and lakes
  • Increase biodiversity and wildlife habitat
  • Improving pollinator habitats
  • Increasing the economic vitality of rural communities

In some cases, agroforestry may provide an accessible means for farmers and landowners to adopt climate-advancing practices. As Propagate co-founder and CEO Ethan Steinberg said recently, AFN, “There is more efficiency in the aspect of agroforestry, [and] The costs are less risky than other climate solutions.” [Disclosure: AFN’s parent company, AgFunder, is an investor in Propagate.]

Is agroforestry new?

no. While the term itself was coined in the 1970s, cultures around the world have practiced various agroforestry techniques for thousands of years, albeit under different names.

The practices of integrating trees, crops, and livestock virtually disappeared in the 20th century as Big Ag moved toward monoculture and commodity crops and agriculture and forestry became two separate entities.

Agroforestry, as we know it today, was originally identified in the early 20th century but has been largely ignored for decades. It wasn’t until the formation of the International Council for Agroforestry Research, now known as World Agroforestry, that it joined the list of sustainable agricultural practices that could counteract the negative environmental impacts of the Green Revolution.

Co-cultivation of coconut and maize to increase productivity on coconut plantations in Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image credit: iStock

What are the areas that practice agroforestry?

It occurs all over the world and takes various forms.

In Nepal, for example, farmers are returning to agroforestry practices with initiatives such as the World Neighbors programme. This improves food security and biodiversity as well as benefits women farmers.

“Programs that use agroforestry are fundamental to improving household food security, as they help meet some of the nutritional needs of individuals,” Raksha Shah, senior director of living programs at IUCN-Nepal, recently told the nonprofit Monga Bay Foundation.

World Agroforestry notes that in Central America, farmers can grow “More than 20 different species of plants on plots of no more than a tenth of a hectare, each of which has a different shape, which together correspond to the stratigraphic composition of mixed tropical forests. ”

These systems may contain everything from a papaya to a banana underlayment, a coffee bush layer, and a ground cover such as a squash. The benefits include not only a wide variety of food, but also shade for people and animals, improved soil health, and reduced erosion.

World Agroforestry also operates projects throughout the rest of Latin America, many parts of Asia, and East, South, West and Central Africa.

Recently, the US Department of Agriculture awarded The Nature Conservancy and its partners $60 million to fund a five-year project to develop agroforestry in multiple US states. This project is one of 70 awards funded by the US Department of Agriculture through the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative.

These are just a few examples of agroforestry around the world.

Reforestation in the Amazon with production of parica and hay. Image credit: iStock

What are the challenges of adoption on a larger scale?

Like many other types of permaculture, adopting agroforestry can present a financial challenge to farmers and landowners. As with practices such as cover cultivation, the return on investment may not be immediate, presenting financial barriers to adoption.

The practice of agroforestry also conflicts with the foundations of modern agriculture, which is based on the use of land of one kind and monoculture. Agricultural policies usually support commodity crops grown in such systems, and provide various incentives and tax exemptions.

FAO points out several other challenges that must be addressed in order to accelerate the adoption of agroforestry. These include underdeveloped markets, lack of awareness and education regarding agroforestry and underdeveloped markets for tree and crop products as compared to commodities.


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