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Food Systems Podcast 28

In discussion with Patrick Worms Podcast summary

Thursday, Aug 05, 2021

Dispelling the myths about agroforestry

Agroforestry has a key role to help agriculture become more regenerative and create a more sustainable food system, according to Patrick Worms, President of the European Agroforestry Federation, who recently took part in our workshop on UN Food Systems Summit Independent Dialogue: Mainstreaming regenerative agriculture. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 29-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

What is the definition of agroforestry and what are some examples of its use on farms?

Agroforestry is the integration of perennial plants like trees or bamboo in a farming system whose main product is crops or livestock. It can take many different forms: dehesa farms in Spain, savanna-type landscapes with cork oaks, grazed orchards, forest grazing, woodlot, hedges, windbreaks.

What are the benefits of adding trees to fields?

First, control of soil erosion. Trees control not just storm erosion but everyday rain or wind erosion. Another example is nutrition management. Tree roots go much deeper than crop roots and pull up nutrients from deep in the soil. They also absorb excess nitrogen that goes deep into the soil.

Better management of water resources. Partial shade keeps moisture in the fields, and trees act like giant rain-catching devices. And pest control – trees host a variety of pest predators, reducing the amount farmers need to spend on pesticides.

Farmers have been hesitant in the past, so how do we deal with the drawbacks of agroforestry, like getting machinery through trees, or too much shade?

The main drawback is a lack of knowledge. Farmers are not trained in growing long-lived plants. With machinery, it’s just about planning the system properly. Same for shade – you can calculate the amount of shade that would optimize your farming system. In years that have erratic weather, trees are going to improve the yield of wheat. The metric that really matters is profit and there agroforestry wins almost all the time because it drives down cost.

How can we increase the uptake of these practices?

Through extension services – very good advice, and farmer field schools. This needs to be paid for by the public sector because a lot of advisory services are paid for by seed companies and input companies. But agroforestry is cheap to establish, so there’s no business model to pay for the advisory service.

Going outside Europe, are there more opportunities for agroforestry in the developing world?

Agroforestry is common around the world. Today we think it’s more adapted to the global south because the south is poorer and less of a market for capital intensive agriculture. More farmers are still operating using these time-honoured techniques. The best of them have levels of productivity which put industrial agriculture in the shade: 300 to 400% more productivity. It’s not either/or, systems are being combined – 42% of all agricultural land in the world has at least 10% tree cover already.

The EU Green Deal, Farm to Fork, the CAP, all talk about agroforestry in a positive way. Will this turn into real on-the-ground changes?

Talk is cheap! Things like the eco schemes have to fund proper extension services. You cannot leave it to the private sector, which will push abiotic technologies like precision farming, which are useful. We’re talking about biotic technology, the trees. To do that, farmers need support.

With insect pressures, droughts etc, are trees themselves in danger from the effects of climate change?

Absolutely – if the rain stops. That’s going to hit over timescales of decades or centuries. In the shorter term, exotic trees are more fragile – that’s why conifer plantations across Europe are dying. So you tend to use local species. The second danger is if the climate changes so quickly that a tree cannot complete a full lifecycle from planting to harvesting. But thankfully, we’re not there yet.

If you could give one policy idea or practical advice to create a more sustainable food system, what would it be?

Mono crops? No thanks. Monoculture is probably going to be less productive, less resilient, less able to draw down carbon than any form of poly culture.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 29-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

Patrick Worms image
Patrick Worms

Patrick Worms is President of the European Agroforestry Federation. He also participated in our UN Food Systems Summit Independent...see more Dialogue: Mainstreaming regenerative agriculture.

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