What is Agroforestry?
Here, you find the complete introduction to Agroforestry. Find out what it is, how it works, and where it comes from.
Table of contents
WHAT IT IS
- Yielding the benefits of integration
- Ecosystem services: Nature’s gift
- Learning from 3.5 billion years of experience
- Three main types of Agroforestry
- Agrisilvicultural systems
- Silvopastoral systems
- Agrosilvipastoral systems
WHY WE DO IT
10 MAJOR BENEFITS OF AGROFORESTRY
- Increased agricultural productivity
- Reducing hunger and poverty
- Women empowerment
- Supporting biodiversity
- Enriched soils and water availability
- Pest control
- Counteracting global warming
- Resilience and microclimate regulation
- Recreation and health
- Animal well-being and meat quality
THE HISTORY OF AGROFORESTRY
- An ancient practice
- A solution for agricultural shortcomings
- The unexploited potential of agroforestry
What it is
Inspired by nature, Agroforestry is a cultivation system that merges trees and agriculture (crops or livestock). All these different elements complement each other. This leads to enhanced resilience, increased biodiversity and a more productive, profitable, and climate-friendly use of the land compared to a monoculture system.
Most of us have gotten to know forests and agricultural land as two separate things. This does not have to be the case. In agroforestry, a portmanteau of agriculture and forestry, these two ways of using land are brought together. Simply speaking, this means that trees, shrubs, or bamboos – so-called woody perennials – are combined with crops and/or animals on the same plot of land. This integration comes with heaps of ecological and economic benefits and provides us with an alternative way of producing food, timber, biomass, meat, and many other products.
Compared to conventional agriculture – think one-crop or -animal farms without trees –, agroforestry provides a range of benefits (click links to learn more about each benefit). These include perks for the farmer as well as society in a wider sense. It is important to note that not every project reaps all of these advantages to the same extent. It depends on the specific design, the aim of the farmer, and the local circumstances.
Ecosystem services: Nature’s gift
To understand where those advantages come from, the concept of so-called ecosystem goods and services provides us with a comprehensible explanation. It describes how humans benefit from ecosystems. What might sound a bit abstract at first is actually quite simple. For example, ecosystems produce tangible goods such as water, wood, food or medicine which we can use and, in many cases, actually rely on. All benefits are listed in the picture:
While it sounds obvious that a forest supplies us with wood and a nice area for recreation, other services, such as flood control or photosynthesis, are less visible and harder to understand. Yet, they are just as important. Photosynthesis, for instance, is the process through which plants produce the oxygen we breathe. Without this service, we would not be able to live on this planet.
Learning from 3.5 billion years of experience
So, how is this related to agroforestry? Agroforestry aims at copying the way ecosystems provide these goods and services: It mimics nature. In nature, different organisms (plants or animals) have evolved to support each other, for example, through the provision of nutrients, shade, or water.
In agroforestry, mutually beneficial trees, crops, and/or animals are purposefully integrated to create those supportive relationships. This way, a system is created that is more similar to natural ecosystems. Accordingly, it provides more goods and services for us too. Generally speaking, the more species there are in a system, the more abundant and stable is the supply of its goods and services.
There are numerous different examples of how different species can be integrated to create those beneficial relationships. One is the combination of pig farming and oak trees: Oak trees provide pigs with nutritious (and delicious) acorns makes them grow fast and develop excellent pork meat. At the same time, the pigs root the soil creating seeding spaces for new oak trees. This, in turn, benefits the trees and makes it a win-win situation.
Three main types of Agroforestry
In practice, agroforestry can take numerous different forms that might look very different from each other. One of its great strengths is its versatility. Different combinations of species and approaches can be chosen depending on the aim of the project and its circumstances. For example, different climates, weather conditions, or soil types require different species combinations.
An agroforestry system may be a large, neatly looking arrangement where all plants are planted in tidy rows (so-called alley-cropping) and crops can be harvested with huge machines. An agroforestry system may also be a species-rich forest garden consisting of many different vertical layers. Those aim for maximizing diversity and creating a flourishing flora and fauna. Further, agroforestry systems can contain animals that interact, in one way or another, with the surrounding trees or crops.
Generally, there are three main types of agroforestry systems:
1. Agrisilvicultural systems
In agrisilvicultural systems, crops (agriculture) are combined with trees (silviculture). This could be your local forest garden in which fruit trees are grown next to shrubs carrying berries and herbs on the ground. They are common on smaller scales, very diverse, and produce loads of edible products on multiple layers. This way, they make great use of the available space.
It could also be a wheat field that is surrounded by protective hedges or shade trees. Apart from aiding the production of wheat, these may then be used to produce other goods such as food (e.g. fruit trees) or fuelwood. Other examples include alley-cropping (neat rows of different species next to each other) or intercropping (mixed species near each other) with trees.
Some existing agrisilvicultural projects are:
- Fazenda da Toca, Brazil
- Wakelyns, UK
- Food Forest Haarzuilens, NL
- Denis Flores, France
2. Silvopastoral systems
The term ‘silvopastoral systems’ simply describes systems that integrate trees with either pastures or animals. This combination is often done for yielding additional tree products (e.g. fruits, nuts or biomass), storing CO2, creating better living conditions for animals, or building habitat for other animals (supporting biodiversity). For example, imagine an orchard growing on the pasture lands of chicken, sheep or geese.
Silvopastoral systems also encompass projects that grow their own fodder for their animals. For instance, unused spaces can be utilized to grow plants, shrubs or trees producing forage. This decreases costs for buying animal fodder and yields additional benefits for the environment and the soil.
Examples of silvopastoral systems are:
- Eichelschwein, Germany
- Bomen voor Buitenkippen, NL
- Investancia, Paraguay
3. Agrosilvipastoral systems
The third possible system is a combination of all three components: trees, crops, and animals. The aim is to reap the benefits of this integration. Bees, for instance, can be held for honey production, while pollinating trees and crops.
The most common manifestation of this triple combination is a typical home garden involving animals. Another example is the so-called aquaforestry. Here, trees are planted around fishponds, while their leaves are used as fodder for fish. Those can be integrated with crop production. Having water in proximity creates another habitat that supports more species.
Existing agrosilvipastoral systems are:
- Apricot Lane, US
- Serra da Estrela, Portugal
WHY WE DO IT
The damage of current land-use practices
Climate change, the ongoing extinction of animals and plants, the degradation of arable land, and spreading deserts in the warmer regions. On a global scale, humanity is facing tremendous environmental challenges that are closely related to the way we currently use our available land. Our current practices of managing land threaten its availability and fertility in the future and, with it, our well-being and prosperity.
Here are some facts related to current human land-use practices:
- The agricultural sector is responsible for about a fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions
- The use of pesticides in agriculture is a major contributor to the current loss of biodiversity (commonly called the 6th mass extinction)
- A third of the world’s soil is already severely degraded due to unsustainable agricultural practices and more topsoil – its most fertile surface layer – is being lost at alarming rates
- The spreading of deserts and the degradation of land which are directly related to agriculture cost us about 490 billion dollars per year
- At least 8 million hectares of tropical rainforest are currently cleared annually, mainly for crop cultivation and cattle ranching
Required: New agricultural solutions
The Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris Agreement from 2015 both highlight that we need to improve the way we do agriculture. Emissions have to be reduced, carbon needs to be stored back in the ground while biodiversity loss, desertification, and land degradation need to be halted.
In light of a growing population that needs to be fed, the agricultural sector is under pressure to find ways of producing more food more sustainably. At the same time, arable land is becoming scarcer as we are degrading more and more of and the population is growing continuously. Hence, there is a need for increasing food production and combining it with environmental enhancement.
We believe that agroforestry has the potential to satisfy this need. It can produce more food, store CO2, increase biodiversity and restore degraded land. At the same time, it does not reduce a farmer’s income (it can even increase it) while it supports rural families and creates a more livable landscape for humans and animals. Agroforestry contributes to nine out of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
Want to find out how it does that? Find out in the following.
10 MAJOR BENEFITS OF AGROFORESTRY
1. Increased agricultural productivity
Doing farming or forestry is a business. Profitability is just as important as in any other sector. This often forces agricultural farmers to suck every last nutrient out of their soils and add more and more fertilizer to keep the yields up. Yet, this is not sustainable and is destroying their soils. This puts the farmers into a dilemma. On the contrary, agroforestry IS sustainable and does not lower a farm’s productivity. It can even increase it!
When done right, agroforestry systems are more efficient than monocultures (one-crop plantation) in using the available resources, such as water, nutrients, or sunlight. For example, in Brazil, Swiss agroforestry expert Ernst Götsch has created a system that yields 2x times as much cocoa as a comparable monoculture farm. Further, agroforestry systems in Europe have shown to be able to increase overall yields by up to 40% in comparison. Simply speaking, agroforestry systems can produce more food on the same amount of land.
Agroforestry can improve soil fertility. Fertile soils can support crops much better than their degraded counterparts and also help to keep unwanted pests or plagues in check. Thereby, the need for costly external inputs – think synthetic fertilizers or pesticides – is diminished. Hence, the investments that farmers have to carry out are lower. This, in combination with the fact that the yields remain the same or even increase, makes the system very profitable.
2. Reducing hunger and poverty
Especially in developing countries of the global south, many farmers rely on the productivity of their land for their own survival. They live from what they grow or sell and often lack the means to buy expensive fertilizers. Agroforestry keeps their land productive and, therefore, ensures their food supply and income.
Another problem for rural farmers in developing countries is malnutrition: As their diets rely on very few crops that they produce themselves, the diversity of nutrients that they take in is very low. Through agroforestry, farmers produce greater varieties of healthy fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. Hence, agroforestry directly contributes to the fight against hunger, malnutrition, and poverty among small farmers.
Different crops also imply different income sources which can get very important: If one crop fails (e.g. due to a drought) or loses its market value, a farmer can still sell his other crops. A current example is the coffee sector. At the moment, the coffee price is below production costs which threatens the livelihoods of many farmers. However, coffee can be grown in agroforestry systems providing farmers with additional products that can be sold. This way, farming businesses are less dependent on one product and can withstand such a crisis.
3. Women empowerment
Agroforestry has proven to effectively empower women in developing countries. Here is how: Women are usually very involved in the production of food, working on the fields and selling the harvested fruits and vegetables. Men, on the other hand, are the ones owning the land. Women have more control over the harvested crops which is why they specifically benefit from agroforestry’s advantages, such as increased yields.
Another example: In developing countries, women are usually in charge of collecting firewood for the household. Without having trees on their own land, they have to walk long distances to fetch wood. This consumes much of their time and is hugely exhausting. Through agroforestry, wood becomes available on their doorstep granting women the time and energy for other activities, such as education.
4. Supporting biodiversity
Agroforestry systems are not only diverse systems in themselves; they also support life in their surroundings. They provide food, shelter, and habitat for other species such as birds and insects which strengthens entire ecosystems. For example, a wheat plantation offers a lot more protection from wind, rain, and predators when it is combined with hedges or tree rows. Moreover, pesticide applications that harm insect populations are reduced or completely abolished in agroforestry.
Agroforestry also restores and maintains the topsoil – the ‘liveliest’ material on earth. It is the layer of the soil that builds its surface which is full of organisms and nutrients and is highly important for crops to flourish. In agroforestry, this layer is covered with dead organic materials (leaves, pruned branches, etc.) to protect the soil, keep water from evaporating, and feed its living organisms such as earthworms and other insects. These, in turn, become a food source for bigger animals like rodents who are prey for larger species again. This way, agroforestry feeds the whole ecological food chain.
5. Enriched soils and water availability
Conventional agriculture is often harmful to soil and its productivity. It destroys its living organisms, its sensitive structure and takes away important nutrients. Yet, soils are essential for human well-being. Agroforestry can turn this development around as it can improve and preserve soil conditions. Trees and plants protect soil from flushing or blowing away while dead plant materials retain water in the soil and nurture living soil organisms. All of those benefits are vital for productive agriculture.
Agroforestry guru Ernst Götsch, for example, has implemented an agroforestry system in Brazil that increased soil water levels by 13% on average compared to a neighboring monoculture system. This is because agroforestry creates a soil that can keep water for longer. Due to climate change, droughts and dry periods are globally becoming more frequent, which is why this benefit will become even more important in the near future.
6. Pest control
Agroforestry has proven to be an effective preventer of pests that are harmful to precious crops. Those could be animals, weeds, or fungi that eat or compete with fruit and vegetable plants. Especially long-lived trees and shrubs such as coffee, cocoa or bananas are less likely to suffer from pests in agroforestry systems.
This is – among other reasons – because agroforestry systems contain more plants and animal species than purely agricultural systems. More insects, birds, and other organisms mean that harmful species face more natural enemies such as predators or competitors that keep their numbers low – it is a natural control system. This way, valuable food crops are naturally protected. Furthermore, harmful weeds have a hard time spreading in an agroforestry system, as they do not cope well with the shade provided by trees.
7. Counteracting global warming
Agroforestry fights climate change. Through photosynthesis (click here for more information), trees, plants, and healthy soils become what scientists call ‘carbon sinks’. That means that they naturally pull CO2 (the main greenhouse gas) out of the atmosphere to store it in their biomass. The more biomass, the more CO2 can be stored. As agroforestry systems are very rich in biomass, they are very effective in doing this. Furthermore, Agroforestry avoids tillage – a common practice in other forms of agriculture – which releases CO2 from the soil into the atmosphere, exactly where we do not want it.
According to Project Drawdown – a comprehensive study listing the most effective solutions for reversing global warming – different forms of agroforestry rank among the top solutions. For example, silvopasture was ranked number 9 while multistrata agroforestry systems are listed as the 28th most effective solution.
Based on Project Drawdown, Australian expert Charles Massy has added agroforestry into an aggregation of systems that are based on similar so-called regenerative practices. Together there are said to be ‘the best way of putting carbon back into the soil’, almost 2 ½ times stronger than the second solution. This highlights the great potential of agroforestry and similar approaches for fighting climate change.
Want to learn more about Project Drawdown and the potential of changing our land-use and food systems to reverse global warming? Watch this video.
8. Resilience and microclimate regulation
Compared to monocultures, agroforestry systems are much more robust. They can withstand extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, and storms very well. It is not hard to understand why: Trees and shrubs serve as protection from strong wind, while their root systems prevent good soil from flushing away during heavy rain. Without those protections, crops are more vulnerable to damage during those events.
Mainly through shade provided by trees, agroforestry systems keep their local microclimate in check. They retain water in the soil, keep the temperatures lower, and preserve humidity. This is important for crops to flourish and animals to thrive.
9. Recreation and health
Agroforestry systems look appealing. Compared to plain and monotonous one-crop farms, they are inspiring, showcase an abundance of life, and imply a beautiful addition to the landscape. Surely some of these impressions may be subjective. Yet, we can say with confidence that a walk through an agroforest will be more diverse than a stroll through a rye-field.
Apart from looking pretty, nature also benefits your health. Studies have found that being in nature reduces the chances of getting cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, among others. It has also been related to good mental well-being. Agroforestry systems that mimic nature can provide those benefits, especially, in proximity to urban areas.
10. Animal well-being and meat quality
Agroforestry also provides an opportunity for increasing the well-being of farm animals. In silvopastoral systems, pigs, cattle, sheep, or chicken can roam around freely and live out their instincts like they would in the wild. Chickens, for example, are forest animals and feel more comfortable when having the shelter and protection of trees around on their outdoor pastures. Pigs like to wallow in the mud and puddles which they cannot find in indoor cages.
Living a lifestyle that is closer to their natural one reduces the animals’ stress levels. They also live a more active lifestyle, whilst having much more space to move. This, in turn, has positive impacts on the taste and texture of their meat. The famous Iberian ham – known to be ‘the best ham in the world’ – is won from pigs that lived outside and mingled freely amidst oak trees.
THE HISTORY OF AGROFORESTRY
An ancient practice
Despite being relatively unknown these days, agroforestry has been practiced all around the world for millennia. In Europe, it was common practice, at least, until the middle-ages to restore harvested forest areas with integrated crops and trees. Farmers in tropical America have purposely created forest conditions around their farming plants the benefits of agroforestry. Moreover, there are numerous examples of African and Asian countries where crops were grown under the canopy of trees for shading.
Trees, for a long time, were naturally understood as an integral part of farming systems. The focus, however, shifted to forestry and agriculture as two separate forms of land-use. Foresters increasingly lost sight of the idea of combining their tree plantations with crops and/or livestock.
A solution for agricultural shortcomings
During the second half of the last century, it was increasingly recognized that the Green Revolution (The introduction of high-yielding crop varieties, stronger synthetic fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides) had failed to bring the promised rewards in some regards. For example, poor and rural families in developing countries had no access to these costly inventions. Therefore, they kept suffering from malnutrition and hunger.
This predicament, combined with the looming fear of the continuous degradation of arable land, drove global institutions, such as the FAO to overthink their policies and initiate new studies on how to address these issues. One solution that sprung out of this process was: Agroforestry. Since then, it has become increasingly acknowledged for its socio-economic and environmental benefits, especially, when human-made climate change and biodiversity loss entered the scene.
The unexploited potential of agroforestry
Today, agroforestry is taught in many university degrees as part of forestry and agriculture courses. It is generally accepted and known for its benefits in soil and environmental conservation and its capability of combining wood and food production. In developing countries, it has been estimated that the livelihoods of around 1.2 billion people are relying on agroforestry.
Although the scientific evidence for its benefits – on small and larger scales – is growing, agroforestry has not yet reached the farming mainstream in most countries. Despite the support of international institutions such as the FAO, the UNFCCC, and the CBD the potential of agroforestry has not been fully recognized and exploited. Hence, there is still a lot of work to do.
Continue with these important sources:
VIDEO: Project Drawdown:100 solutions to reverse global warming (Highlighting regenerative practices as very important)
Achieving the global goals through agroforestry (PDF)
Ecosystems and human well-being (PDF)
Agroforestry enhances biodiversity and ecosystem services and can increase agricultural productivity (PDF)