As the world population passes the 800 billion mark, the global food system is in a dilemma. It needs to produce more food, and yet it is both contributing to – and affected by – climate change.
According to a recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, for example, more than 820 million people are undernourished and 151 million children stunted from lack of nutrients. At the same time, climate change is wreaking havoc on crop yields because of increasing temperature, changes in rainfall patterns, and the greater frequency of extreme weather events. Pastoral systems, on which anywhere from 200 to 500 million people rely, especially in the tropics, are particularly vulnerable, the report states, but fruit and vegetable production is also at risk, with yields expected to decline.
Inevitably, there’s an almost directional relationship between the amount of time passing and the space food and agriculture takes up in climate change dialogues, research and negotiations. It’s an indication, says World Agroforestry chief scientist Fergus Sinclair, of how policymakers are recognizing the need to transform global food systems – currently responsible for about one-third of all carbon emissions – and cut back on the conversion of forested land to agriculture.
But how is more food meant to be produced while minimizing the use of land? Enter agroforestry.
According to the International Union of Agroforestry, founded in 2019, agroforestry is a science, a practice and a movement, one that promotes the inclusion of “woody perennials” – trees – and even shrubs, bamboo and palms into cropland or pasture. The many benefits of doing so include healthier crops, bigger yields, a greater diversity of farm products, enriched soil, upticks in biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
“These trees provide forest services,” says Sinclair. “If not all, certainly some of the services that we expect from forests can be provided by tree cover on farms and in various environmentally protected and productive niches in agricultural landscapes.”
With agroforestry already covering over 1 billion hectares, or 43 percent, of agricultural land globally, it has already proven itself to be key in restoring fertility. Soil in landscapes that have been converted from purely agriculture to agroforested shows significantly higher concentrations of organic carbon, according to a study carried out by Penn State University in 2017: Soil organic carbon increased by 34 percent on average, researchers found, while shifting from grassland or pasture to agroforestry produced average increases of approximately 10 percent, making it an effective tool for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and mitigating climate change.
Another aspect of agroforestry is the use of the forest itself, says Sinclair, either through an agriculture of trees, such as plantation forest, or the regular harvesting of naturally occurring forest products, such as timber, nuts, rubber and oils.
While the research community often sees the big-picture objective as a paradigm shift for agriculture and an antidote to the harms caused by monoculture and the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, agroforestry is also a key component of landscape restoration.
“Agroforestry has always been very much about restoration,” says Sinclair, “and that’s because it’s been primarily about trees in agricultural landscapes, and the roles that they play in maintaining ecosystem services.” That includes agricultural productivity, he adds, “but also all of the other things that we need from landscapes whether it’s biodiversity conservation, clean water, maintenance of pollinators, and so on. So it has always been an agroecological approach.”
What’s more, biodiversity on farms can be increased by recognizing the trade-off between those species that enhance it but have less market value and those that provide higher income. “If you want to increase the biodiversity value of tree-planting, you have to look at it in relation to the potential income that you might get if you just went for high value (market) products,” he points out. “The implication there is that if you want to encourage the greater biodiversity value, then you need to provide some sort of incentive for farmers to make that work. You then need a public investment on the basis that biodiversity has a value.”
Adding agroforestry to the bucket of climate change solutions is both crucial to the transformation of food systems as well as a challenge. There is a tendency for it to fall through the cracks between the different UN conventions and agencies as well as those among government departments, with environment dealt with by one, agriculture by another and energy by yet another.
“Yet in order to achieve anything significant,” says Sinclair, “you’re dealing with people on the ground for whom these things are not separate spheres.”
Such integration needs to be at the appropriate scale, he adds, and not only at the individual or household level. “If we look at a lot of the ecosystem services, they get manifested at the local landscape scale, and you need to have social capital and policy instruments working at that level in order to manage the interaction of land use change and the provision of those services.”
In most cases that doesn’t yet exist, says Sinclair. “It’s a critical gap that needs to be filled.”
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