With the population on Earth growing at such a rapid pace, food availability is becoming scarce. Although conventional farming aims at producing enough food to feed these people, it is unsustainable and damaging our planet. Instead of exploiting the soil and other resources, we need to start moving towards a more sustainable form of agriculture. Agroforestry - also referred to as permaculture and regenerative agriculture - is agriculture of the future. It is a method of farming that integrates more perennial plants than annual plants and uses many different species in one area together to utilize all layers of the soil, while simultaneously regenerating it. This not only increases the biodiversity of the environment, but also produces better quality produce and higher yields. Instead of going against nature and trying so hard to control it, agroforestry works with the natural course of plants, soil, and the ecosystem. This method is not necessarily modern technology; almost all ancient people around the world used this land-use management system to grow the food they needed. Today, there are many foundations and initiatives that focus on spreading awareness, educating, and helping people start their own regenerative farm. Even though not everyone has access to land that they can cultivate, it is important that people are educated about the current situation of the world and the priority that sustainable food production should have when discussing the future. Agroforestry systems can be broken down into three categories that are basically determined by the different arrangements of animals, crops, and trees on the land: the agrisilvicultural system, the silvopastoral system, and the agrosilvopastoral system. I will go into more detail about each one later. This method of farming is ecologically, economically, and socially rewarding and can be considered a viable option for growing food sustainably for the fast-growing population.
Since trees have such a fundamental importance to many ecosystems around the world, the practice of agroforestry and permaculture has been adopted by many people in order to grow their crops in a more sustainable manner. This practice of maintaining and integrating trees in the agricultural landscape has been around since ancient times all over the world. Before conventional farming, this was an easy to use method that provided many different types of crops that could be produced in a smaller area. In Europe, for example, the Spaniards created their own agroforestry farming system, the “dehesa”, which are still used today. The dehesa consists of a low-density woodland where the trees are an integral part in the agricultural landscape that is grazed by livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats. With such a diverse landscape, there are many outputs that can be created such as meat, wool, and cork, but that is not the only benefit. The biodiversity created by this flourishing environment is also beneficial to the health of the planet. This method dates back to 4,500 years. In Germany, farmers would clear the land of trees and grow crops in its place. They would then have trees grow anew on the land, beside the crops. This method was practiced up until the Middle Ages. In the Americas, multi-story agriculture was practiced far before the term was named that. With this method the people were able to maximize the vertical space by mimicking the complex ecosystem which brought multiple benefits along with it. In Asia, the Hanunoo of the Philippines practiced a complex type of shifting agriculture. When cutting out areas of trees for crop production, they would deliberately leave certain trees that would later act as a canopy for the plants growing below. In Africa, Swidden cultivation - a technique of rotational farming - has been used for centuries. The term agroforestry was originally outlines in the early 20th century by American economic geographer J. Russell Smith in his book Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture (1929). In his book, Smith describes how tree-based permanent agriculture could be a solution to the destructive erosion that follows cultivation of land. These are just a few of many examples around the world of how agroforestry has been used in the past.
Agroforestry is a land-use system where woody perennials - such as trees and shrubs - are deliberately placed on the same plot of land as agriculture crops and/or animals that is ultimately a dynamic natural resource management system. This method of cultivation seeks positive interactions between its components, aiming to achieve a more ecologically diverse and socially productive output from the land than is possible through conventional agriculture. This method aims to implement many forms of integrated land management, ultimately seeking to reduce human impact on the land and promoting long-term, sustainable, and renewable forest management. The philosophy behind agroforestry, simply put, is the recognition of the complementary interactions of plants, that can reduce stress to plants and animals, enhance yields, retain soil, and capture water. Instead of forcing nature to conform to the unnatural system of conventional agriculture, the basic idea is to let nature run its course and reduce human interference as much as possible. This system is also designed to produce a wide range of benefits including food, feed, fuels, fibers, and usually renewed soil fertility. Trees play a crucial role in this system because they hold the soil in place, increase fertility through nitrogen fixation, or transport minerals from deeper layers of soil, depositing them at the surface as the tree’s leaves fall. The benefits of this land management system are vast and extensive. For one, it improves the year-round production of food and other useful products, as well as the use of labor and resources. A very big benefit is its effect it has on soil. This method is able to protect and even improve soils and water sources. Since more of the land is used, there is an increased efficiency in the use of land. Carbon is sequestered into the soil, which is incredibly important in this age of climate change.
In carbon-sequestration alone, agroforestry offers the greatest potential compared to different land use systems because of the large extent of area available worldwide for agroforestry adoption. The short term food production offsets the cost of the establishment of the trees which provide shade for the crops. There is a medium and long-term production of fruits, and a long term production of fuel and timber. Lastly, there is an overall increase in production to eat or to sell. These are just a few of the many benefits of agroforestry.
The components of an agroforestry system include: land, trees, non-tree crops, and often animals. Although agroforestry is beneficial to any landscape, it must be tailored specifically to its environment. Hillside farming can benefit greatly form this method since soil erosion in these areas can happen rapidly. Another point to consider is that farmers normally rent land, thus they do not think of the long-term benefits, only the profit they are able to make in a given time. This way of thinking is quite detrimental to the overall wellness of the planet and people should move towards a more conservative mindset that can benefit generations to come. The trees planted in these areas typically have multiple purposes. They can be a source of fruits, nuts, edible leaves, and other foods, as well as a source of construction material, posts, and lumber. Non-edible materials like sap, resin, and tannins can also be used. Trees benefit the crops by providing nitrogen, minerals, and shade, and they improve the soil fertility overall. By using this method of farming we are able to conserve the soil instead of exploit it. The non-tree crops can be anything really. They can be crops for making money, for feeding people, for good nutrition, for self-sufficiency, for feeding the animals, and for protecting the soil. All of these points can be considered when choosing which crops to plant in a permaculture farm. Lastly, animals can be used as well, based on which values the farmer is looking for. Animals can be kept for the purposes of making money, feeding the farmer, supplying labor, as a non-food product, using crop residues, and for their manure. These systems must be intensively managed to maintain their productive and protective functions through careful cultivation, fertilization, irrigation, pruning, and thinning. These components must be structured and combined to optimize the positive biophysical interactions between them, such as mutualism and commensalism.
The different combinations and uses of these components can be classified in three categories: agrisilvicultural systems, silvopastoral systems, and agrosilvopastoral systems. In an agrisilvicultural system, trees are combined with crops. This can look like many different things, for example improved fallows where a woody species is planted and left to grow during fallow. Ally cropping - or hedgerow intercropping - uses woody species as hedges to separate alleys of agricultural species in a strip arrangement. This method is quite common. The arrangement can also be scattered haphazardly, as in multilayer tree gardens, or surrounding agricultural fields as windbreaks and shelter belts. Trees can also be planted simply as an effort for soil conservation and reclamation on bunds, terraces, and raisers with grass or without. The method of agrisilvicultural is practiced in most home gardens as well, with a multistory combination of various trees and crops situated around homesteads. Silvopastoral systems include tree and pastures or animals in one area. Trees can be grown on rangeland and pastures, scattered or in a pattern. They can also provide protein-rich tree fodder on the farm and rangelands for cut-and-carry fodder production. Plantation crops can also be planted with pastures and animals, as they do in South-East Asia and the South Pacific where cattle are kept in pastures with coconut palms scattered about. Lastly, agrosilvopastoral systems include all three components of animals, trees, and crops. For example, apiculture would be classified under this category as the trees are planted for honey production. Aquaforestry is also in this category and refers to the method of planting trees around fish ponds which provide fallen leaf forage for the fish in the pond. There are numerous ways that agroforestry can be adapted to work for different environment and for different purposes.
Even though agroforestry is beneficial in so many ways, the shift to this way of land-management is slow. There are a few challenges and obstacles that we have to overcome as a society in order to make this system achievable. The first challenge is the delay return on investments. Even though tree become profitable as they produce positive net values over time, the actual break even point may not be achieved only after a number of years. The market for tree products is quiet under-developed compared to crop and livestock commodities and the value chains related to agroforestry systems received little support which acts as another obstacle. Secondly, there is still a large emphasis on commercial agriculture through incentives offered by agricultural policies promoting certain agricultural models, such as monoculture, as well as tax exemptions that are normally aimed at industrial agricultural production. This can also be quite discouraging for a farmer and may deter them from adopting agroforestry. The advantages of agroforestry are not well known, restricting the interest and support of policy-makers in agroforestry development. This in turn influences negatively the amount of resources dedicated for research and market information. There is also an unclear status of land and tree resources in many developing countries which may also discourage people from working the land in a way that can be beneficial in the future. Lack of long-term rights to land inhibits long-term investments such as agroforestry. Unfortunately, agricultural policies often penalize practices that are needed to implement agroforestry. The tax regime may also be less advantageous for forests compared with agricultural lands. Lastly, there is often a lack of coordination between sectors which leads to policy conflict and omissions. Since agroforestry includes multiple sectors - including agriculture, forestry, livestock, rural development, environment, energy, health, water, and commerce - the development may be stunted. Most of the issues stem from policy-makers and politics, because in theory and practice this method is the most beneficial for the planet in the long-term.
When it comes to the future and feeding the future generations, it is up to us to move towards more sustainable and ethical methods of managing land, plants, and animals. If conventional agriculture continues to be the dominant method of producing food, we are headed towards planet devastation. It is up to the farmers of the present and future to educate themselves and implement sustainable land management practices and methods that give back to the soil instead of exploit it.
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