Recently in the United States, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service – the closest American equivalent to the BBC) launched a new programme called The Age of Nature. It seeks to examine, “humanity's relationship with nature and wildlife and how scientists and conservationists study ways to restore the planet.” In its inaugural episode, one segment focused on the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. The park was once the jewel of the nation, however, devastating civil war and famine in the 1970s reduced the park to a burned and dusty shadow of its former beauty. Forty years later, Gorongosa has made a miraculous comeback, with elephants, lions, and zebra thriving and flora flourishing. This stunning revival is much credited to the local people. Entire villages banned together and helped to replant the native forest. This in turn allowed for healthier coffee plantations, as the native trees created shade for the crops. The show reflects that, “for most of human history, we lived among nature, with great awareness of the plants and animals we depended on.” Gorongosa’s remarkable story highlights the agricultural practice of agroforestry and the healing and interwoven benefits it can have on farming and society.
What is agroforestry?
The basic definition is, “agriculture incorporating the cultivation and conservation of trees.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), “agroforestry is the collective term for land-use systems and technologies in which woody perennials (e.g. trees, shrubs, palms or bamboos) and agricultural crops or animals are used deliberately on the same parcel of land in some form of spatial and temporal arrangement.” In real world terms, this means the crops or livestock have a mutually beneficial relationship with trees, and the farm or local community has an additional natural resource.
What are the benefits?
Trees have an ever-long list of benefits and uses. Systems that incorporate agroforestry can protect against erosion, improve soil fertility, protect crops or livestock from wind, conserve water, contribute to biodiversity, and enable climate change mitigation. The positive impact on the environment is immense, and yet agroforestry must be developed and managed by skilled experts. Incorrectly deployed, it could put crops and trees into competition for resources, a detriment to both groups.
How does it help people?
Using Mozambique as an example, The Age of Nature estimates that over 200,00 people have benefited from restoration of the national park and the introduction of agroforestry to coffee production. There is a direct link between the practice and reduced rural poverty by increasing farm production, household income and creating employment opportunities. By introducing trees and improving soil health, farmers can reduce costs that may go into fertilizers or to reverse erosion. By having a sustainable supply of wood, the community may also receive lumber, building materials, fuel, food or animal fodder. Making land within a community more productive may mean people do not need to migrate for work, and can sow and reap the benefits of their labour right at home. The FAO’s research indicates that health and nutrition are also improved with agroforestry. Rural societies that rely on collecting or gathering resources, such as firewood, see a reduction in time, effort and money for these products, and often lessen the burden on women tasked with these roles. Agroforestry promotes mutual help within communities, maintains social bonds, promotes security while maximizing land output for the labour input.
Mozambique is on the opposite end of the world, and has a much different climate from the UK. Is agroforestry possible here?
Yes, and it’s already happening in the UK. Bangor University in Wales has partnered with the Woodland Trust to investigate how agroforestry can help sheep throughout Great Britain’s temperate climate. In this instance, the trees are part of a silvopastoral system, which means that, “trees are introduced to forage-based production systems in widely spaced, uneven intervals. ” The trees provide shelter from adverse weather for the sheep, and this helps them maintain an increased core temperature. By being warmer when outdoors, the sheep save energy and are thus more productive, rely less on supplemental food, and lambs have lower mortality rates. It’s good for the field as well, as trees shelter it from wind, which allows plants and grass to grow more readily. An even simpler example of agroforestry in action is all the countryside hedgerows zig-zagging across the UK, planted to benefit livestock and soil.
What is the future for agroforestry in Great Britian?
Thus far, agroforestry is not as widely practiced here as it is in other parts of the world. ADAS - Agricultural Development and Advisory Service – sites practical and policy challenges to making agroforestry more prevalent in the UK. More research is needed to demonstrate the operational and economic benefits across the country, as well as governmental policy and monetary support for farmers to make changes. The Woodland Trust is a major proponent of agroforestry, funding the trials with Bangor University, educating farmers and influencing policy. They estimate that currently only 3% of UK farmland practices agroforestry, and upping the level to 10% will assist the UK in hitting its climate change targets. Funding is available to farmers in Wales and Scotland to undertake the practice, but not yet to farmers in England. Additionally, the Agroforestry Research Trust has trial grounds in England where people can see crops and trees in action. As a testament to their success, the organization is carbon-negative, as they store more carbon on their land sites than they produce. These groups are working in concert to make agroforestry the new standard for British farming, providing a simple, sustainable and economically viable solution for all stakeholders in our ecological food chain.
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations
Agricultural Development and Advisory Service - The Potential of Agroforestry
Woodland Trust - Agroforestry Benefits