First outlined as far back as the late 1920s to combat farmland erosion, the practice of agroforestry has become the leading forestry practice for sustainable farming.
While agroforestry has long been used in developing countries around the world, it’s only now starting to be properly promoted as one of the best techniques for sustainable land use. This is due to agroforestry’s ability to yield both wood and crops while improving soil health.
With agroforestry offering a win-win solution all around, it doesn’t come as a surprise that a growing number of countries are starting to implement this sustainable land-use approach on a bigger agricultural scale.
Here we’ll explore:
- The importance of agroforestry and why it’s sustainable
- How it works in practice
- The environmental benefits of agroforestry
- Any potential drawbacks
How does agroforestry work?
Agroforestry is an approach to agriculture that encompasses different techniques, planting and protecting selected trees alongside crops to the benefit of the local ecosystem.
The practice sees agriculture in a holistic way. You’re not just allocating your crops around an area where trees are found, you are carefully selecting trees and crops based on how they naturally interact with each other.
In short, agroforestry works by combining agriculture (agro) and forestry – hence the name!
When done properly, agroforestry kickstarts the natural chain of events that enhances crop yield, soil health and biodiversity, as well as providing wood products for energy. There can be different types of agroforestry too, such as tiered systems and silvopastural, depending on what the farmers wants to produce.
For example, planting specialty crops like shiitake mushrooms under a canopy provides the shade needed for these mushrooms to grow while preventing soil erosion.
Similarly, trees can provide food and shelter for raising livestock.
Planting trees and shrubs between or around coffee crops can help improve and enrich soil structure, benefitting the entire ecosystem. From nature’s perspective, agroforestry makes perfect sense and is more in sync with the natural history of our planet.
How is agroforestry sustainable?
So, how is agroforestry sustainable?
The answer comes down to land use and symbiotics.
Forest conservation is often a matter of incentive to land owners. However, there’s no better way to incentivise reforestation and woodland conservation than making trees fundamental to agriculture, rather than a hindrance!
Planting more trees holds several benefits for local ecosystems as well as our climate. This means that agroforestry makes for one of the best win-win solutions in tackling all issues stemming from modern agricultural practices.
4 environmental benefits of agroforestry
Let’s take a closer look at the environmental benefits of agroforestry.
1. Biodiversity conservation
The biggest benefit of implementing agroforestry in both temperate and tropical ecosystems is biodiversity conservation.
Biodiversity promotes richer nutrient storage in the soil, climate stability, and creates a wider selection of food and wood products. This is on top of protecting diverse flora and fauna from extinction!
2. Carbon reduction
Agroforestry can also help ease the effects of climate change by promoting carbon reduction (carbon sequestration). Growing more trees allows us to offset greenhouse gas emissions, promoting cleaner air at the same time!
This is why companies like Ecologi are helping individuals and businesses plant trees across the world in the millions – at the time of writing this post they’ve just planted their 20 millionth tree!
3. Soil enrichment
Thanks to enhanced biodiversity and the planting of trees, agroforestry can also help improve soil structure and enrich the soil with more nutrients.
Rich soil can help produce healthier and more abundant crops, impacting the quality of the food we (and our livestock) eat.
On top of that, the nutrients that a healthy soil gets from the ecosystem promote healthier trees and shrubs as well, creating a self-sustained cycle that will benefit everyone!
4. Water quality improvement
Finally, why is agroforestry sustainable when it comes to protecting our water?
Agroforestry can help improve the quality of our waterways, as trees are essential for stabilising stream banks and absorbing pollutants.
One of the biggest drawbacks of traditional agriculture is the constant flow of contaminant nutrients into streams thanks to the overuse of chemicals. This is why organic farming without the use of synthetic chemicals is such a bonus.
Higher concentrations of trees and woodland are essential for absorbing and recycling the majority of these sediments, along with nitrogen and phosphorus.
Why is it important compared to traditional agriculture?
Hopefully you’re beginning to see why agroforestry is important and why it’s labelled as such a sustainable practice.
Now let’s take a direct look at why agroforestry is considered more sustainable than traditional agricultural practices.
The main reason why agroforestry beats traditional agriculture when it comes to sustainability is that it promotes conservation instead of deforestation.
Conventional agriculture is responsible for as much as 27% of forest loss, while urbanisation only accounts for 0.6%. The UK plans to significant increase woodland cover but is not hitting its targets. Organisations such as Rewilding Britain and Friends of the Earth, want to see forest cover doubled and even tripled in the next decade.
An increase in greenhouse gas emissions, lower air and water quality, soil erosion, desertification, and troubling decreases in yield and quality of crops are all consequences of worldwide forest loss.
So yes, a rethink of conventional agriculture is long overdue!
On top of that, agroforestry has also been found to benefit the local community. One study showed that improved agroforestry systems can almost double income per capita compared to traditional agriculture.
Are there any disadvantages of agroforestry to the environment?
In terms of the environment, there aren’t many disadvantages to agroforestry.
However, even though there are many important benefits associated with agroforestry, that doesn’t mean that the practice is completely free of any drawbacks, or even minor disadvantages.
This is a highly complex approach to agriculture, requiring specialised technical knowledge and plenty of manpower to see through. This makes it considerably more challenging for farmers and landowners to get right.
Planting the wrong tree next to a particular crop can destroy one’s hard work in one single season.
For example, planting a big tree too close to a sun-craving crop can hinder production. Growing a tree species that animals are drawn to next to a crop they also love to eat can, quite literally, make your crops disappear!
Agroforestry can only work when all the specialists involved in production and conservation know what the local ecosystem needs, rather than trusting a trial and error process. It is also a labour-intensive system that doesn’t rely on machines.
Perhaps more importantly to modern culture, agroforestry is an incredibly time-consuming practice — it will take a lot of time investment for those trees and bushes to grow. With time of the essence for most, this is a big hindrance.
To conclude, agroforestry is not an easy and quick fix by any means.
However, when it comes to environmental sustainability, these practices easily pass all eco tests with flying colours. This is as long as agroforestry specialists and educated farmers are overseeing the project and working alongside the ecosystem, not against it.
The big question is: is the UK prepared to make the switch to agroforestry and deal with this specialist, labour-intensive practice for the good of the planet? I, for one, hope the answer is yes.