It's time to take another look at agroforestry.
Everywhere in the world, NGOs are calling for “zero deforestation” commitments to slow agricultural expansion on forests. At TFT we are supporting companies to make and implement those commitments in their supply chains, starting with understanding where they source their raw materials from, getting traceability and then trying to work with growers of palm plantations (among other crops) to see how they can develop a landscape approach that allows agricultural development and forest conservation to coexist. I am really happy about that and believe it’s one of the most efficient ways to stop massive clearance of forest. It needs to happen urgently.
At the same time these commitments reinforce a growing opposition that exists in human minds between forests and agriculture, and it bothers me. Trees and agricultural crops are all vegetal species with roots that are plunging into the same soil, making and using the same organic matter. They breathe the same air and use the same water. They are family. Yet we are opposing them: the wild and the cultivated. The forests and the fields.
For centuries we have cleared forests and trees to make always bigger fields and create space for the agricultural machines. Simple. Isn’t it well proved that trees make shadows which reduce the intensity of the photosynthesis of the cultivated crops and therefore their productivity? Maybe it’s time to seriously question the paradigm inherited from the eighties just as we question other things from that era. It’s time to stop opposing fields and forests, trees and crops.
Not a lot of publicity was made in the media, but as I write the World Congress on Agroforestry is taking place in New Delhi (Feb 10-14). I have heard about agroforestry a few times recently, and interestingly it was through two people who work in big corporations: Jean Manuel Bluet, Sustainable Development Director at Nestlé France; and Howard Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer at Mars. Are big corporations taking interest in what seemed to be a “niche” activity reserved for small philanthropic projects?
Agroforestry (which could be defined as the art of farming trees and crops together on the same field to explore their synergy) doesn’t look like a science, so no one really gives it any kind of credit. It’s actually a practice that many smallholders have been using for centuries around the world. It’s a very ancestral practice that has traditionally been used at ‘family scale’.
Badly studied and analysed, struggling to survive in the shadow of the progress of agrochemistry, it has somehow been forgotten. And that’s why it’s never been thought of differently than a niche or a “non scalable solution”. But if we look empirically at its benefits, they are great, numerous and much needed at global scale: trees associated to crops help tackle erosion by limiting runaway and they can help tackle pests more efficiently by reintroducing habitat and therefore diversity in the food chain. Trees can also protect agricultural crops from a warming planet, or against drought. They can contribute to fertilise the soil and bring back organic matter, stimulating the ecosystem with their roots and their microbial partners. The list goes on.
So even if we are taken by the urgency to tackle massive deforestation, we should explore how No Deforestation commitments can truly connect forests and crops and not put them further apart. Agroforestry is without a doubt a key element in bringing forests and agriculture into a peace process. This is where we need to innovate as it could well be the key to building resilience in our changing ecosystems. How can businesses and big corporations encourage this?