The Hidden Art of Agroforestry

23 April 2020 - // Interviews
Patrick Worms
Senior Science Policy Advisor, CIFOR-ICRAF

Aside from aesthetics, there’s nothing particularly striking about trees on an agricultural landscape – or is there? Senior science policy advisor of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Patrick Worms, tells REVOLVE why there’s far more to agroforestry than meets the eye and why its practice will continue to play an increasingly crucial role in climate-resilient farming practices.

What is agroforestry and why is promoting it important?

Agroforestry is the art of mixing trees with crops or pasture in order to obtain direct or indirect benefits that translate into higher resilience and higher productivity – and thus a better, more predictable income. We tend to think of agroforestry as adding trees to agricultural lands, but it can also be the reverse: adding agricultural or livestock components to forested lands as long as the end result combines trees with other crops or livestock in a way beneficial to all parts of the system.

Agroforestry is essential to our future, both in terms of food and fiber security and climate mitigation and adaptation. There are two key things to remember about agroforestry. First, it generates more biomass from a given piece of land; and second, it boosts resilience to extreme weather such as floods and droughts. Secondly, agroforestry allows us to grow more food and fiber without converting more land to the plough or plantations. More importantly, it allows us to do so even during the increasing weather extremes caused by climate change that make growing monocrops more difficult.

In the EU, around 16 million hectares are occupied by some kind of agroforestry system – or 10% of all agricultural areas. How can we better identify these agroforestry systems?

As agroforestry is perhaps the most wide-ranging of agricultural management techniques, it is complex to define. Because of this, it can easily be regarded as something you’ll just know once you see it.

It encompasses everything from the thousands of kilometers of identical windbreaks of the Soviet Union to the exuberant multi-story Chagga gardens on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. It ranges from Maasai herders on the wooded savannahs of Kenya – to the Bellota pigs rooting for acorns in Iberian dehesas – to the Arctic reindeer herded across the taiga. It has saved millions of Nigeriens from famine through farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR) and is revolutionizing cereal cultivation through alley cropping. Thus, defining what exactly constitutes an agroforestry system and what does not is tricky. The European Union, the FAO, the United States Department of Agriculture, India and a dozen other countries each have their own definitions – largely overlapping but not coinciding. The one proposed by the EU gets close, however: it defines agroforestry as a “land-use system in which woody perennials are maintained or planted, in some form of spatial arrangement or temporal sequence, on the same land as agricultural crops and/or livestock.” (Source: EEA Glossary)

The presence of trees in landscapes is typically well perceived by society; trees also offer multiple environmental benefits such as carbon storage, soil retention, and improvement of air quality. Why then are farmers in the EU not implementing agroforestry despite the EUoffering financial support?

Farming is a difficult business. Let us never forget that it is probably the only trade where most practitioners work extremely long hours to fail to make a minimum wage. Farmers must be conservative to have a chance of surviving this season and growing next season. Furthermore, their experience of extension over the past 40 years has been overwhelmingly negative. They followed the advice to invest ever more, buy ever bigger tractors, ever more fertilizer and pesticides, in a desperate race to avoid bankruptcy. But for most farmers it was in vain: every year, more and more farmers must wrap up their affairs and sell up. European farmers are already, on average, in their late 50s; the price of land is being driven up by speculators, making it extremely hard for younger farmers to become established, and the discourse in the farm supply shops is dominated by the messages of those who have the most money to spend on marketing – namely the sellers of inputs and machinery.

In addition, EU member states are not applying EU rules regarding agroforestry uniformly. Farmers have sometimes been prevented from receiving their Pillar 1 payments for having had the temerity of planting trees in their field. Such stories, rare though they are, spread, and act as a massive barrier to agroforestry extension.

In such conditions, it takes a courageous farmer to try something new and unusual such as planting trees on her land.

Alley cropping of hazel and potatoes at Wakelyns Agroforestry, Suffolk UK. Photo: ORC for AGFORWARD project

The new EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is taking shape. The past CAP (2014-2020) included measures to promote the implementation of agroforestry systems but were not really successful. What are you proposing for this new CAP version and how can it be related to the EU Green Deal?

This year is a crucial one for agroforestry in Europe.

First, the entire architecture of the CAP will be changed. Much of the detailed rule-crafting and decision-making will be repatriated to the Member States, who will have to explain how they plan to meet broad European objectives through so-called strategic plans.

Second, the European Union is finally beginning to take climate change almost as seriously as the emergency demands, aiming for Europe to become a net-zero continent by 2050. The European Green Deal is the signature policy of the new commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and its details are being fleshed out now. Crucially, it counts on agroforestry to help deliver net-zero: “The Commission will work with the Member States and stakeholders to ensure that from the outset the national strategic plans for agriculture fully reflect the ambition of the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy. These plans should lead to the use of sustainable practices, such as precision agriculture, organic farming, agro-ecology, agroforestry and stricter animal welfare standards.” And these are not mere words: The Commission has plans to raise €1 trillion to finance the transition.

In that context, EU policy needs to pursue the following eight goals:

  1. Promote agroforestry: Agroforestry must be specifically promoted to support the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Goal, and key national and international targets.
  2. Support agroforestry: Agroforestry must be supported through Pillar I of the Common Agricultural Policy, and everywhere – on arable land, on permanent grasslands, and in permanent crops.
  3. Celebrate agroforestry: The new CAP must group together, and integrate as “agroforestry,” the many measures that support the small-scale use of trees in Pillar II on both agricultural and forest land.
  4. Recognize agroforestry: Member States and the EU should report the extent of agroforestry through their annual “report indicators” and quinquennial “impact indicators”.
  5. Monitor agroforestry: Many countries have afforestation targets but neglect agroforestation and regeneration of existing agroforestry features, such as hedges. These could greatly increase tree cover, while reducing the financial and fiscal drawbacks of afforestation for farmers.
  6. Distribute agroforestry tools and knowledge: The Commission is making a GIS “Farm Sustainability Tool (FaST)” available to all EU farmers. This should be modified to include the impact of farm-trees on nutrients and GHG emissions.
  7. Use agroforestry for a better climate: Ensure that agroforestry is included by every Member State in annual emissions reporting to the UNFCCC.
  8. Resist creating forestry versus agriculture silos: Prevent Member States from excluding forestry measures, including agroforestry, from their CAP Strategic Plans and from their annual CAP reporting requirements.

Pillar 1 of the CAP concerns the direct income support payments that go to farmers from the EU; pillar 2 of the CAP requires cofinancing from Member State governments to further competitiveness, sustainable management, the combating of climate change and supporting of rural economies (Source: Institute for Government)

Patrick Worms
Senior Science Policy Advisor, CIFOR-ICRAF

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