You reap what you sow – except if you sow in the forest

Usually you reap what you sow. But when fields are merged with forest you might end up reaping a lot more benefits than if the two had been kept apart. This way of managing land is called ‘agroforestry’ and the advantages of the model are numerous.

Last year, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) published a comprehensive assessment of land all over the planet. The conclusion was that a third of land globally is severely degraded and that there is a tendency of further degradation. The main reason? Human pressures for food, water and energy.

In this context, the way we cultivate our productive lands is immensely important. Several alternatives to conventional industrial agriculture are emerging these years. Agroforestry is a particularly interesting example of this and is defined by the European Agroforestry Federation as “the integration of woody vegetation, crops and/or livestock on the same area of land”. Agroforestry is thus an umbrella term covering many different land use systems with the common denominator that they integrate woody vegetation (such as trees) into productive systems.

But what makes agroforestry interesting? The answer can be divided into two: Environmental and socioeconomic benefits.

Environmental benefits

One of the main environmental benefits of agroforestry is the improved nutrient use. Multi-level root networks from crops and trees combined are able to take up a lot of the nutrients from fertilisers, especially nitrogen (N). In monoculture systems, much of the nutrients escape the single-level root networks and often end up polluting nearby water bodies.

Other environmental benefits include:

  • Protection against soil erosion from wind and water. The widespread erosion of soils is mainly linked to agricultural mismanagement and deforestation and the introduction of more trees and understory vegetation related to agroforestry has a large potential to slow down or reverse soil erosion.
  • Improvement of water quality and countering of detrimental effects of water pollution.
  • Improvement of air quality and climate mitigation. Trees efficiently filter particles in the air, such as pollutants from machinery and odours from livestock and fertilisers, improving the air quality.
  • Increased carbon sequestration, as more trees means more incorporation and storing of carbon for extended periods in both below- and above ground production of organic matter.
  • Wind protection and shade from trees offer significantly improved conditions for soils, crops and livestock.

Finally, agroforestry systems across their diversity tend to be superior to monocrop systems when it comes to promoting and protecting biodiversity. Trees and diversified ecosystems provide shelter and sustenance for a much greater variety of species than vast monocultures. Collapsing biodiversity is one of the most critical environmental problems of our time, and any means to enhance diverse species’ conditions will be beneficial at a much larger scale than the local system.

Socioeconomic benefits

Many of the socioeconomic benefits spring directly from the environmental ones. Improved soil quality and wind protection means higher productivity. A better nutrient uptake and recycling means lower fertiliser costs. Moreover, fewer pollution issues and enhanced biodiversity often means less need for chemical pest control and manipulated pollination. This enables the farmer to improve his economic outcome from the production system.

Other socioeconomic benefits include:

  • Resiliency of the production system to extreme weather and changing climatic conditions. Both are consensual consequences of human interference with the environment, and this summer has underscored their detrimental impact on our monocrop production systems.
  • Diversification of production. The more complex the system, the more types of products can be harvested, introducing new valuable products such as nuts, mushrooms, hardwood, eggs, honey, high quality fodder etc. to the farmer’s production. This also makes the economy of the farmer more resilient as it does not rely only on a single product.

A completely different benefit is the improved recreational value. A healthy and diverse ecosystem will be more suitable for hunting, horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking and other recreational activities. This can improve life quality and provide further economic potential for farmers and land owners.

Agroforestry – merging nature and production

The various benefits outlined above are just a few of the most noticeable ones but the list is far from exhaustive. Though agroforestry is hardly a miraculous solution to solve the global issues of environmental degradation and socioeconomic deprivation, it does prove a promising tool to approach these challenges simultaneously.

However, just as there are many benefits, there are also obstacles to the wider adoption of agroforestry practices. Agroforestry systems are generally very knowledge-intensive, meaning that an extensive understanding of plot design, species combinations and maintenance is necessary to cultivate optimal growth conditions and avoid competition for water, sunlight and nutrients.

However, this should not be a hindrance to get involved with agroforestry, as still more farmers and organizations work hard to help farmers get started. Danish Forestry Extension is one of them and we have solid experience in advising farmers around the world as part of our projects in Uganda, Nepal and Bosnia.

Agroforestry systems present a potential to reconcile our agricultural production with the processes of nature. And a potential to diversify and increase the benefits we reap when we sow.


How to learn more:

Opens internal link in current windowA short article about Danish Forestry Extension (DFE)’s agroforestry project in Nepal

Opens external link in new windowWorld Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)

Opens external link in new windowAGFORWARD, a four-year EU funded research project to promote agroforestry in Europe

Opens external link in new windowAssociation for Temperate Agroforestry (AFTA)