Agroforestry – what are the benefits?
Agroforestry works because it’s farming in 3D – the roots reach deep into the ground to cycle nutrients and store carbon, while above ground, the trees protect crops and animals against the elements.
Agroforestry can therefore solve many problems of intensive farming in one fell swoop.
Agroforestry has been around for thousands of years, but it’s benefits have often been forgotten. In the future, in the same way as the past, planting trees amongst crops or grazing fields could allow us to achieve ‘sustainable intensification’. This is a way to increase crop yields, while also benefitting the environment in the following ways:
1. Resilient and sustainable food production
Agroforestry mimics natural ecosystems far more closely than monocultures do, where one single crop is grown over large areas of land. It works by letting different biological systems cooperate and flourish. This can lead to a rise in productivity, as trees and plants find ways to interact and support each other symbiotically. All of this can actively improve conditions for plants, livestock and wildlife alike.
Firstly, planting trees between crops reduces soil erosion – their roots bind the soil in place so that it doesn’t wash awash during heavy rain or strong wind, which can otherwise cause huge problems for farmers. They also take up water, preventing water pollution from reaching our ponds and rivers.
2. Increased productivity
Trees add an extra crop that gives the farmer protection against poor harvests. Fruit, nuts or timber can provide an alternative income stream if the main crop fails due to unlucky circumstances such as wet summers or mild winters.
Diversified cropping through agroforestry can support farm businesses to operate throughout the year and avoid the peaks and troughs of seasonal demands and therefore providing a source of year round income.
3. More space for wildlife
Wildlife has an equal right to the landscape as we do. If farmers can get the same yield out of a smaller field through agroforestry, the rest of the space could be used to plant extra trees and hedgerows to house wildlife.
In some trials, these extra habitats have even helped with pest control, because they act as a home for “friendly predators”, who combat some of the pests that would otherwise eat or destroy crops.
Agroforestry landscapes also provide plenty of corridors for wildlife to move between habitats: crucial when it comes to foraging and breeding.
4. Better for the planet
If we are to feed a growing world population, we need to think of clever solutions that can deliver food from sustainable and resilient sources. This will become especially important in the future, when climate change might alter weather patterns and make growing conditions less predictable.
The main thing we need to do to combat climate change is to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Trees are a great way to achieve this, because they take carbon from the atmosphere and store it safely deep in the soil. They also cycle nutrients which feed other plants, animals and fungi, who go on to nourish the soil further. And healthy soils are able to store far more carbon than degraded soils.
Healthy soils can also reduce our dependence on chemical fertilizers, because they already contain all the nutrients farmers need, and can replenish themselves naturally.
What more incentive do we need to embrace agroforestry?
Find out even more benefits of agroforestry by reading our latest agroforestry report. You'll also find our 7 recommendations that we're making to government to enable the UK to unlock the opportunities of agroforestry. Read the report here.