Agroforestry is largely regarded as a sustainable means of food production beneficial to the environment. However, its potential remains highly untapped. With the European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) undergoing reform, there will likely be financial cuts with higher efficiency recurring as the guiding motto for EU policies. What the CAP should include is an extensive plan for agroforestry within the EU’s agricultural practices, fostering food security in a sustainable and environmentally sound way.
Learning from our ancestors
Agroforestry is a practice that is far from new. Even thousands of years ago, people used clearings in forested areas for the production of vegetables, aware of the important role trees play in providing suitable conditions for food production by buffering harsh climatic conditions and enriching the soil.
As a response to environmentally degrading industrialized farming practices, in recent years agroforestry practices have received increasing attention and uptake in both tropical and temperate regions as a way to improve food security while reducing the environmental impacts of production. Despite being supported by scientific results – and backed by intergovernmental institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the European Union (EU), there has not been substantial increases of agroforestry areas around Europe. In fact, European agroforestry systems make up around 15.5 million hectares, representing just 3.6% of the total territory and around 9% of the total area dedicated to agriculture. These are mainly located around the Mediterranean basin and are mostly typified by old silvo-pastoral practices, which are well adapted to the region’s hot and dry conditions.
Defining agroforestry is complex as it integrates various concepts. The European Agroforestry Federation defines it as “the integration of woody vegetation inside the parcels or on the boundaries (hedges), crops and/or livestock in the same area of land.” While several types of systems can be considered as agroforestry, they all have one advantage in common: the strategic combination and distribution of the different trees and crops, or animals, that comprise agroforestry systems allow better use of solar radiation and available water resulting in an overall higher biomass production compared to monocultural systems alone.