Explainer: Agroforestry

Willow Beck
Quinn Emmett
September 30, 2022
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What is agroforestry?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless problems that our world is facing. One of the goals of INI is to help you feel better about the state of the world so that you can overcome feelings of hopelessness and get to work. And while humanity is facing many problems, we also have many solutions ready to go the moment we are willing to implement them. The most promising of these solutions are multi-solving - such as agroforestry.

Agroforestry is a solution that (if well-implemented) will improve food security, make land use more efficient and sustainable, reduce biodiversity loss, provide countless ecosystem services, and increase climate change resilience (that old chestnut).

This kind of farming has existed all over the world for a long time (add it to the list of Things Indigenous People Do Better) and began attracting the attention of the Western scientific community in the 1970s (and yet, here we are in 2022).

Agroforestry definition

Simply put, agroforestry is exactly what it sounds like - agriculture with trees. This sustainable land use and farming strategy combines multiple forms of agriculture on the same piece of land. Agroforestry takes advantage of the interaction trees have with the land to balance feeding the world, protecting the environment, and ensuring revenue for farmers. The idea is to imitate a natural ecosystem so that farmland is sequestering more carbon (working with nature instead of against it).

This can look a lot different depending on where you are in the world and what you are harvesting but the main agroforestry systems include some more long compound words (you can use them to warm up before your next open mic) such as:

  • Agrisilvicultural (combining crops and trees) such as alley cropping and home gardens
  • Silvopastoral (combining trees and foraging livestock)
  • Agrosylvopastoral (catch ‘em all - trees, animals, and crops)
  • Riparian buffers and windbreaks could also be considered agroforestry in that they involve using trees to benefit agricultural land. However, these uses don’t necessarily take advantage of using harvest or timber from trees as an additional revenue source, and the agricultural land the trees are protecting could still just be miles and miles of a mono-crop (most likely destined to cause greenhouse gas farts in livestock), so the integrative land use idea is not quite there

Agroforestry benefits

The advantage of agroforestry is that trees are awesome. The phrase “hug a tree” exists because THEY DESERVE IT. Trees help with water retention, prevent soil erosion while improving soil quality, store carbon in the soil, and provide shelter for livestock. Adding grazing animals into the mix helps with weed maintenance, insect control, and soil fertility. Growing multiple things on the same piece of land also means multiple harvests and multiple streams of income for farmers.

Another environmental benefit of agroforestry is that it may help pollinators (#savethebees) by providing habitat, increasing biodiversity, enhancing landscape connectivity, and mitigating pesticide exposure.

Agroforestry projects

Higher biodiversity makes the tropics particularly adept for agroforestry, while also providing income and food security from products not controlled by international trade, in areas of the world where smallholder farms are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

India leads the way in implementing agroforestry, with a National Agroforestry Policy. This policy will help the country increase forest cover and improve soil quality, something that is hard to achieve due to population pressure. Indian farmers practicing agroforestry have achieved a 300-800% increase in profits over five to seven years.

Scalability is possible, but there isn’t a one size fits all approach. An approach that considers the variation in social, economic, and ecological contexts is necessary, which can be achieved by embedding research within the development phase rather than separating the two. That being said, agroforestry programs are scaling up everywhere from Haiti to Indonesia to Mali.

The evidence for the benefits of agroforestry at scale in high-income countries is still not fully understood, but tools to help improve this understanding have been developed.

It’s estimated that there are 2.7 billion acres suitable for silvopasture worldwide, and currently, only about 351 million acres are being utilized. An increase to 554 million acres by 2050 would potentially reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 31.2 gigatons.

In the United States, agroforestry only accounts for about 1.5 percent of all US farms (although it is likely slightly more than that due to the loose definition of agroforestry). That’s a lot of opportunity for growth! The United States Department of Agriculture has provided an Agroforestry Strategic Framework to help farmers understand the benefits and transition to agroforestry practices. Beyond support, they’re throwing money at agroforestry implementation in the US too - awarding The Nature Conservancy $60 million to advance agroforestry practices in 37 states.

Farmers can also look into the Practice Standards for Agroforestry in their state, through this interactive map developed by the National Agroforestry Center.

Go deeper into agriculture

The global food system is complicated. We need to feed a growing population food that is more nutritious and varied (can’t have poutine for every meal, unfortunately), that isn’t wasted along the way, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while we're at it. Agroforestry is a promising solution to some of these problems but it’s going to take the whole shebang.

To go deeper into more solutions to fixing our food system, listen to the following conversations on our podcast feed:

Episode 14: How do we improve America’s agriculture system?

Episode 20: How the hell are we gonna feed 10 billion people

Episode 57: Make Food Nutritious Again


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