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Agroforestry in action

Georgia Farnworth, policy officer at the Soil Association, explains how we can use trees to fight climate change
Agroforestry in action

This article appears in the summer issue of MyGreenPod.com Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 14 July 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online.

Georgia Farnworth, Soil AssociationWhen we think of British farmland, we usually think of lush green pastures with grazing cows and sheep, or we think of fields of cereals or vegetables. Mature trees may be dotted through hedgerows, but rarely do we see many trees in fields, as much a part of the farm as the crops or animals.

Agroforestry is the cultivation of trees alongside crops or livestock. They can be planted in neat rows, with alleys of crops in between, or planted closer together to provide shelter, shade and food for grazing animals.

If we were to look back thousands of years, to our earliest agricultural history, we’d see agroforestry was a common way of managing land for a variety of purposes. Sadly, as our farming has become more uniform and intensive, we’ve steadily lost trees from our farmed landscapes.

However, times and attitudes are changing and the Soil Association is among those calling for more farmers to embrace agroforestry and the many benefits it can bring to productivity, biodiversity, animals and the environment.

FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE

Growing two crops from the same land – rows of fruit trees in cereal crops, for example – can boost the yield and increase farm productivity and profitability. Increasing productivity in this way could also release land for woodland, rewilding or less intensive farming.

Agroforestry could be a big asset in our fight against climate change. The Soil Association is calling on the government to insist that farming plays its part in reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and supports the move to zero net emissions after 2050 in line with our Paris commitments. Increasing the area of agroforestry is key: not only would more trees increase carbon storage above and below ground, but agroforestry can help to make farming more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate.

AGROFORESTRY’S BENEFITS

Trees improve soil fertility and reduce erosion; they increase the capacity of soils to absorb and store water, protecting against flooding and drought. Agroforestry can also provide farm animal welfare benefits by providing shelter, shade and food to livestock – and it would diversify our farming industry, which is crucial for a secure and resilient food supply.

Research has found that agroforestry systems can significantly increase farm biodiversity. This is because trees provide habitats for birds, insects and mammals which might otherwise not be found in agricultural landscapes, while the understory (the ground below trees) can be home to a number of more diverse plant species.

Given all these benefits, why is agroforestry such a niche practice in the UK? Part of the problem is the lack of financial incentive for farmers, particularly in England. Short-term farm tenancies can discourage farmers from making long-term investments, and there’s no joined-up government policy to support agroforestry. Another obstacle is a lack of practical, on-the-ground support and a scarcity of understanding, among farmers and landowners, of the benefits agroforestry can bring – and how to get started.

THE FUTURE OF FARMING

Luckily, there are clear solutions to these problems. Agroforestry pioneers, NGOs and researchers are working to take agroforestry out of the margins and into the mainstream.

The Soil Association is asking politicians, farmers and the public to embrace agroforestry as a transformative approach to the future of UK farming. Looking ahead to the many challenges we face – from Brexit to climate change – it’s abundantly clear that agroforestry must be at the centre of a new, sustainable, innovative and resilient British food and farming system.

Click here to join the good food revolution and to find out more about the Soil Association.

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