Trees and Farmland: An Essential Union for the Future of Agriculture and Food Security
Growing trees alongside other crops can make agriculture more sustainable. Read on to learn about the countless benefits of agroforestry!
Revolutions in technology, forest and biodiversity based financial mechanisms are paving the way for a new cash crop - the future being high yield agroforestry systems that increase local incomes and planetary health.
Agriculture contributes 4% to the total global GDP while providing employment to over 60% of the total workforce on the planet. The sector mainly comprises crop farming, horticulture and agroforestry, forestry, animal husbandry, and fishery, and occupies almost 37.4% of all the land area on earth. Agriculture also plays a huge role in socioeconomic development with the sector still being the major occupation of the people living in the rural areas. Almost 45 percent of rural households are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and subsistence. As per The World Bank, agriculture can play a key role in reducing poverty and meeting food security goals for 80% of the world’s poverty-stricken households involved in farming.
Despite the sector’s immense contribution to the economy, there are shortcomings that need to be addressed. For instance, global food production relies heavily on just 3 percent of the total number of cultivable food crops– resulting in declining diversity of crops and increasing malnutrition. A recent report on food security estimates that nearly 690 million people (almost 9 percent of the total global population) are exposed to food insecurity.
On top of that, the resource-intensive methods of agriculture, combined with land degradation, overpopulation, and risks induced by climate change, pose serious threat to the sustainability of agriculture.
With growing populations, the demand for food has also increased exponentially. Gradually, there has been a switch to industrial farming which has fed the population, but has created new challenges.
According to a study commissioned by the FAO, environmental externalities resulting from industrialized farming amount to approximately US$3 trillion per year. Environmental externalities arising from industrial farming range from air, water, and soil pollution to a decline in biodiversity on farms. Accounting for these hidden costs, the study estimates that the total environmental cost of crop production might be equivalent to 1.7 times its production value. For instance, land-use changes and water pollution owing to chemical inputs in agriculture, such as in the cultivation of corn, cost $130m in China and $90m in the USA.
Soil, the very basis of agriculture, is also adversely impacted by industrial agriculture. According to reports, we have lost half of the planet's topsoil in the last 150 years owing to the degradation of land. Soil erosion and degradation of land lead to increased pollution and sedimentation in water bodies, resulting in 1) loss of productive land, 2) depletion of water resources, and 3) loss of aquatic biodiversity. Acknowledging and internalizing these costs into the total cost of crop production will not only ensure agricultural sustainability, but also reduce public health expenditures.
Despite the several challenges to maintaining the health of our soils, a thoughtful mix of sustainable farming practices can help in preventing land degradation while contributing to our food security and the livelihood security of millions of small and marginal farmers. Introducing trees and plants in the cropping system, or agroforestry, is one of the ways to enhance the sustainability and productivity of our farmlands. Trees can help in supporting agriculture by checking soil erosion, conserving moisture and water required for the growth of crops, regulating temperature and the overall climate of a region, and by sheltering birds and bees and other forms of biodiversity that can keep pests under control and aid in the pollination of crops.
Yet, trees have often been sidelined in policies and their role in agriculture has generally been undermined. This has led to land-use conversion at gigantic scales. The clearance of trees and forests for agriculture exposes the land to erosion and water runoff thus directly impacting the valuable resource base for agriculture.
Traditional farming practices included several native tree species in the cropping mix to create an agriculture system resembling a natural forest. Modern agriculture acknowledges that such techniques help in the conservation of soil and moisture and support food production while keeping the ecological health of the soil intact.
Planting perennial and nitrogen-fixing trees enrich the soils, improve their nutritive values and help in storing more organic matter (carbon). Further, it is estimated that for every one percent increase of carbon in the soil, it holds 20,000 gallons of water per acre. This sustains yield, improves the nutrition content, and increases the resilience of the farmland to droughts and overdemand for water supplies, which have been getting increasingly common as a result of climate change. Trees can also help mitigate the risk of soils turning saline in arid and semi-arid regions by helping soil retain its moisture. Growing trees to reclaim and regenerate agricultural land also makes perfect economic sense.
Growing more varieties of native trees on farmland also attracts a host of biodiversity by creating ecological habitats for a wide range of organisms both above and below ground. The presence of birds on such farms can help in the natural control of pests, bee communities support the pollination of crops, while organisms in the soil can increase nutrient availability and help in maintaining soils. This biodiversity and the associated life cycles create an agricultural system rooted in the principles of ecology and sustainability.
Besides augmenting the productivity of agriculture, growing trees can also enhance the livelihoods of farmers through the provision of diverse products such as fruits, nuts, medicinal plants, and resins.
Greenstand created the Treetracker as a response to the needs of single mothers in rural East Africa. These women typically survive and raise their children on less than one U.S. dollar per day. Our founders recognized the need for a sustainable source of income that did not force landowners to degrade their own natural resources. The myriad environmental benefits of growing trees alongside other crops, in addition to sustainable supplemental income, has made a world of difference for our Treetrackers. Since the introduction of the app, Greenstand has verified over 700,000 trees are growing across 47 countries.
Despite all the benefits of agroforestry in reviving agricultural lands and contributing to livelihoods, the adoption of agroforestry has a long way to go. Issues like focus on short-term agricultural yield and lack of sufficient knowledge have been found to be the major hindrances. There is a need for reforms that incentivize agroforestry, coupled with extension services that educate farmers about the methods and benefits of tree-based farming.
Acknowledging the role of trees in agriculture and incorporating agroforestry is an approach that can help us meet our goals of food and nutritional security while conserving natural resources and fighting climate change.