There are two quotations that I like to use when talking about food and farming:
- “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness” – Thomas Jefferson, 1787
- “Agriculture is without doubt the most destructive practice we have – more so than any coal mining, oil or other extractive industry”– Allan Savoy, 2013
Together, these perfectly portray the inherent dilemma of agriculture, namely that it harbours great potential while all too frequently causing harm at the present moment.
The World Bank estimates that “agriculture, forestry and land use change are responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions.” Moreover, 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, world population will grow by 1.2 billion in just the next thirteen years, and reach an astounding 11.2 billion in 2100. Clearly, the need for sustainable food production is more urgent than ever.
Yet, far from being ‘sustainable’, agriculture – and industrial agriculture in particular – is having devastating ecological effects. For example, deforestation, ocean dead zones and loss of biodiversity can unfortunately all-too-often be linked back to the way we produce food. Even worse, agricultural production not only has an impact on the environment, but is naturally affected by it in return. However, an emerging farming practice known as ‘agroforestry’ may hold the key to truly sustainable food production.
Oak to joy
If you are wondering ‘What on earth is agroforestry?’ then fear not, for you are not alone. Often mentioned in connection with both sustainable intensification and ecosystem services, one definition is:
‘a dynamic, ecologically based, natural resources management system that, through the integration of trees in farms and in the landscape, diversifies and sustains production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all levels.’
It’s an umbrella term for a range of practices that involve integrating trees with farming. Agroforestry systems have been shown to combat soil erosion and increase biodiversity, as well as leading to higher soil nutrient concentration while reducing nitrogen leaching. And diversity and resilience are essential for sustainable farming in the face of climate change.
In Europe, traditional agroforestry systems have often been turned into crop monocultures, but there are examples of successful adoption agroforestry – particularly alley-cropping – on a large scale, In 2017 the Soil Association and Woodland Trust issued a report concluding that uptake of agroforestry in the UK has mainly been prevented by a lack of knowledge and a policy vacuum. What does this mean for England specifically and where do farmers stand on the issues?
Last summer I had the pleasure of visiting four different English farms that had dedicated part or all of their land to agroforestry. I also got to participate in workshops organised by the Organic Research Centre and was thus plunged headfirst into the world of English agroforestry. Identifying myself as a Geography student by means of my Patagonia jacket and notebook – while my obscenely clean wellies clearly set me apart from those who really know about farming – I spent some very pleasant days wading through trees and livestock (silvopastural agroforestry) as well as trees and crops (silvoarable agroforestry).
Everyone I spoke to – farmers, researchers, and those simply interested in the subject – agreed that agroforestry offers a comparably simple solution to many of the problems inherent to modern agriculture and that it should be implemented more widely. However, there is much disagreement regarding its future in England. Some see agroforestry’s greatest potential as allowing us to more sustainably intensify farming, and consequently advocate large-scale, industrial systems. Others perceive this as contrary to agroforestry’s agroecological roots, warning against increasing the size of individual businesses, and instead calling for replication of small-scale farms situated firmly within the circular economy.
Navigating the maize
Regardless of where one sees the future of agroforestry, certain obstacles to uptake remain. Adopting a new style of land-use system is both costly and time-consuming, and the environmental benefits agroforestry provides won’t easily persuade those on the fence. Creating more biodiversity is relatively easy, but farmers need to see a return on their investments. Furthermore, timespan can also be an issue: trees grow slowly and implementing agroforestry systems is therefore a long-term investment – something that might be cause for apprehension given the lifetime of agricultural tenancies in England. In short, farmers’ time and efforts need to either be compensated through guaranteed future monetary returns or subsidised from the beginning.
This brings us to more concrete problems faced by English agroforestry. Firstly, according to the Woodland Trust, agroforestry sits in-between ‘forestry, environmental stewardship and agriculture’ with regards to policy. This has made it difficult for farmers seeking financial support. For example, while there are plenty of woodland planting goals in the 25 Year Environment Plan, agroforestry system tree density (75-200 trees/hectare) is usually below the requirement for woodland creation grants (min. 400 trees/hectare).
Similarly, EU Common Agricultural Policy Pillar I regulations have previously seen arable land that formed part of an agroforestry system become ineligible for support payments regardless of the level of production. Thus, while grants certainly do exist for different aspects relating to agroforestry, farmers need to actively seek out information and so far no specific agroforestry grant has been established.
While initiatives like AGFORWARD have published reports on policies relating to agroforestry in Europe, a lack of UK specific research might contribute to the slow policy developments and uptake of such systems here. As different tree/crop combinations work best in different environments, location-specific recommendations and guidelines will have to be developed, but data (e.g. concerning quality and yield of arable crops in agroforestry systems in the UK) are still very sporadic and sometimes contradictory.
In order to provide Defra with a good platform to devise future policy, it seems we still need a holistic cost-benefit analysis of agroforestry and a better valuation of ecosystem services.
Could money grow on trees?
While we will certainly need a strong policy framework, public funding might not be the only way forward. One interesting aspect of agroforestry is the opportunity it could present for businesses interested in green finance and alternative investments. As a means of diversifying one’s portfolio and limiting exposure to climate-related risks, green finance is undoubtedly well on its way from the niche business strategy of a few small financial services firms into the mainstream.
Agriculture in particular has been receiving some attention from those looking at alternative investments. In this regard, agroforestry seems a suitable green investment opportunity, especially considering its improved resilience to climate change compared to other agricultural systems. In fact, UK-based social enterprise Food and Forest has suggested an equity release system in potential cooperation with pension funds or sovereign wealth funds as one of the three points in the enterprise’s agroforestry incentive package.
Where does this leaf us?
There are some great examples of successful agroforestry systems across the globe, especially in China (where agroforestry systems cover more than three million hectares) and more generally in the Global South.
In the UK, although not much is being heard about agroforestry in the public realm so far, things are certainly moving behind the scenes – and they have been for a while. For example, the Agroforestry Research Trust has been educating about agroforestry since the trust’s inception in 1992, and more recently platforms like AFINET (Agroforestry Innovation Networks) have been providing a space for farming practitioners and researchers to exchange knowledge. Increasingly, farmers too are becoming more vocal, with people like Stephen Briggs effectively bridging the gap between agroforestry academics and farmers.
Overall, English agroforestry still seems to be in its formative stages and its future will largely be shaped by the decisions and actions taken by agroforestry practitioners and policy makers today. To help them on their way, however, we need to grow the support network available, consolidate data and research, and more forcefully advertise agroforestry’s environmental and economic benefits to the general public. ‘What on earth is agroforestry?’ should become a question of the past.
Featured image: National Agroforestry Center (CC-BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.