Agroforestry is the way to go
What is it, where does it come from and why do we do it?
When we address the topic of sustainable agriculture there is one term which often comes to mind: agroforestry. Although agroforestry is an agriculture practice which has been around for ages all over the world, its benefits, at both the production and environmental level, have been recently re-discovered by farmers willing to conduct a type of agriculture which respects the agroecological principles of ecosystem protection and restoration. Also agricultural scientists and ecologists have been paying lately more attention to the science behind agroforestry and the principles which regulate the biological and physical interactions within this type of cropping system. Since this new “scientific” discovery of agroforestry, many theories on how to improve and optimize this system have been proposed. This led to astonishing results both in terms of the yielding capacity of the crops involved in the system and impressive benefits at the landscape level from an environmental point of view (Young, 1989). But what is agroforestry? Where does it come from? How many types of agroforestry exist?
What is agroforestry?
The term agroforestry comes from the combination of agriculture and forestry: it is the practice of having woody perennial plant species and annual/perennial plants (the crop representing the main production type) or animals on the same plot of land.
There are three main types of agroforestry (Torquebiau, 2000):
- Agrisilvicultural systems. These systems consist in integrating agriculture with silviculture, which mean having on the same plot woody perennials and annual crops. Examples of agrisilvicultural systems can be a wheat field surrounded by shade trees or coffee plants intercropped with teak trees.
- Silvopastoral systems. These systems integrate animals or pastures with silviculture. Examples of silvopastoral systems can be an orchard where chickens roam freely.
- Agrosilvipastoral systems. Here we have a combination of trees, crops and animals. An example of it is acquaforestry.
Where did it all start? Everywhere!
Agroforestry is not a new practice in agriculture. It has been arond for millenia and basically all over the globe as well (Steppler & Nair, 1987).
Until the middle ages, in Europe, it was common pratice to plant tree species on cleared-up forest stands, alongwise with agricultural annual crops. This extensive agriculture practice doesn’t, of course, exist anymore, although it was still practiced in Germany until the 1920s.
On the other side of the ocean, in Central America, rural communities have been for a long time imitating the structure of the tropical forest, by growing up to dozens of different species simoultaneously on the same plot: an upper layer of coconut or papaya combined with an intermediate layer of bananas or coffee, a lower one of maize, down to the ground level with soil cover plants such as squash.
In Africa, plants such as yams, beans and maize were grown under a cover of trees, while in Asia trees were part of the of the rice system, to provide the crop with enough protection from the sun in order to guarantee a proper ripening of the grains in the late stages of the rice development.
Why do we do it? Because it works!
Agroforestry has been proved to lead to several benefits, not only in terms of production but also with regards to the (agro)ecosystem. These benefits can be summarized into three main categories (Paulo, 2013):
- Creation of favourable environmental conditions.
- improved soil quality
- higher water availability for the plants
- improved biodiversity by offering shelter and protection to insects for the pollination of the annual crops and to the predators of the crop pest.
2. Protection of the annual crop.
- cooler microclimate which mitigates the effects of high temperature
- higher protection from heavy precipitation events by reducing the amount of rainfall reaching the ground and the energy with which the droplets impact the surface.
- better drainage of the water which percolates into the soil
- lower risk of erosion
3. Increased benefits for the farmer.
- By growing different crops, the farmer can exploit several market niches as well as rely on different types of production, in case the annual crop fails to meet market demand
- If the annual crop is intercropped with bushy plants, the latter can provide extra fodder for the animals, which, in rural communities, plays an important role in cutting the expenses on animal feeding
Paulo, S. (n.d.). Impacts of Coffee Production in Agroforestry System for Sustainable Development. 11.
Steppler, H. A., & Nair, P. K. R. (Eds.). (1987). Agroforestry, a decade of development. International Council for Research in Agroforestry.
Torquebiau, E. F. (2000). A renewed perspective on agroforestry concepts and classification. Comptes Rendus de l’Académie Des Sciences — Series III — Sciences de La Vie, 323(11), 1009–1017. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0764-4469(00)01239-7
Young, A. (1989). Agroforestry for soil conservation. C.A.B. International ; International Council for Research in Agroforestry.
If you want to know more on how agroforestry can save coffee production from climate change…click here!