By Nick Gutkin
Despite being an ancient farming method practiced by cultures from all over the world, agroforestry is only just now becoming a more widely known concept in Europe. Combining agriculture and forestry, agroforestry refers to different types of land use where woody perennials (such as trees and shrubs) are grown together with other types of agriculture such as crops or animals[i]. The two most prominent agroforestry systems currently used in Europe are the dehesa/montado systems of Spain/Portugal that raise animals such as pigs together with oak trees, and the reindeer husbandry systems utilising pine trees in Finland and Scandinavia[ii]. However, these systems are relatively uncommon across the greater landscape of European agriculture, as agroforestry only makes up a total of 9% of European agricultural land[iii].
Some agroforestry practices have been applied in parts of Europe since the Middle Ages, while others have been around for thousands of years[iv]. In more recent times, a separation between agriculture and forestry has been reinforced by European institutions, which have given plenty of financial support to each separately, but none to the integration of these land uses in more interconnected ways[v]. Despite the long history of agroforestry in Europe, the modern focus on agricultural intensification and monocropping has eroded such practices around the continent.
With the climate crisis driving rising temperatures, variable precipitation, and increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events in Europe, agricultural yields are becoming ever more precarious. In a rapidly changing world affected by climate change, monocultures (both in forest and agriculture) are much more vulnerable to adverse effects and extreme weather shocks[vi]. Monoculture plantations are those where a single crop (or tree) species is planted continuously to increase efficiency. However, such plantations (particularly in agriculture) require high levels of fertiliser and pesticide applications, while continuously reducing the fertility of soils[vii].
In contrast, diversified agricultural systems incorporating agroforestry with multiple crop types can not only produce high yields with less chemical inputs, but they can also buffer the negative effects of climate change[viii]. This is because diversified systems exploit the concept of ecological niches – or the specific combination of nutrients, water, and ecosystem services that a plant species both requires and contributes to an agroecosystem. Growing many different plant species together allows them to function more like a natural ecosystem, with each species fitting its own niche while supporting the others. Agroforestry also contributes to increased biodiversity, giving threatened species such as birds and insects a refuge from disturbance[ix]. In the monoculture-dominated landscapes of rural Europe, even small patches of agroforestry could provide a safe haven to combat the biodiversity crisis and continental decline in insect populations.
The twin climate and biodiversity crises are driven in large part by the industrialisation of agriculture. When governments subsidise unsustainable farming practices, they are directly supporting increased emissions, the destruction of native biodiversity, and chemical inputs that affect the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. However, as researchers learn more about the negative impacts of such farming systems, they also learn about the alternatives and how they can be applied to boost ecosystem services. The tide is changing on the European agricultural front, as new initiatives by the European Commission (EC) are brewing the perfect conditions for a broad application of sustainable farming practices, including agroforestry.
The Carbon Farming initiative is a part of the EC’s Farm to Fork Strategy and aims at revitalising European soils by using sustainable farming practices to increase the levels of soil carbon across the continent (which also improves soil fertility)[x]. One of the methods under this initiative is agroforestry, which helps protect soils and increases soil nutrients through a circular system that reduces the need for synthetic inputs. Furthermore, the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 highlights the importance of agroforestry as a way to provide benefits for biodiversity, people, and the climate in the context of rural development[xi]. These two strategies come together in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which sets agroforestry as a key area of action to help increase sustainability in the agricultural sector[xii].
The EU policy landscape created by the CAP, together with the EC Green Deal and myriad other initiatives focusing on increasing the sustainability of agriculture in Europe while improving the welfare of farmers is just one side of the equation. On the other side are European consumers, who are increasingly looking for food that is environmentally friendly, free from synthetic inputs, and locally produced[xiii]. Agroforestry is a solution that responds to both sides of the equation, both by fitting the sustainable methods described in the CAP, but also by providing diverse, healthy, and local foods to European consumers.
Despite this perfect storm, the implementation of agroforestry in Western Europe is minimal at best, with some government initiatives supporting small pilot projects, such as Agroforestry Flanders[xiv] and AFAC[xv]. Some other hopeful initiatives are driven by local communities, like the Food Forests in the Netherlands[xvi] that provide local and sometimes forgotten ingredients to restaurants and the community alike. Such bottom-up agroforestry farms show that Europeans are yearning for more sustainable agriculture that helps to both mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change while providing healthy, locally grown food.
Some of the main barriers to agroforestry adoption in Europe are due to a lack of knowledge on how to implement such practices, as well as the financial barriers farmers face in setting up such projects[xvii]. In order for agroforestry to become a viable European agricultural strategy, there needs to be more effort put into knowledge-sharing and support for willing farmers. A European platform for the sharing of successful techniques, underpinned by direct financing for farmers to start with agroforestry is essential for the further development of agroforestry in the EU. By listening to the needs of farmers and giving them access to the information and support they need, European governments can embrace the power of agroforestry to deliver climate-smart benefits to Europe’s landscapes, ecosystems, and people.
[i] “Agroforestry: Definition”. (February 23, 2015). Food and Agriculture Organization. https://www.fao.org/forestry/agroforestry/80338/en/
[ii] Augère-Granier, M.L. (June 2020). Agroforestry in the European Union. European Parliament. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/651982/EPRS_BRI(2020)651982_EN.pdf
[iv] Nerlich, K., Graeff-Hönninger, S., Claupein, W. (2013). Agroforestry in Europe: a review of the disappearance of traditional systems and development of modern agroforestry practices, with emphasis on experiences in Germany. Agroforestry Systems, 87, 475-492. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10457-012-9560-2
[v] McAdam, J.H., Burgess, P., Graves, A.R., Rigueiro-Rodríguez, A. (2008). Classifications and Functions of Agroforestry Systems in Europe. In: Agroforestry in Europe, 21-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-8272-6_2
[vii] Balogh, A. (December 13, 2021). The rise and fall of monoculture farming. Phys Org. https://phys.org/news/2021-12-fall-monoculture-farming.html
[viii] Stanford University. (March 18, 2020). Crop diversity can buffer the effects of climate change: Researchers uncover benefits of diversified farms for protecting wildlife and buffering against climate change. ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200318143704.htm
[x] “Carbon Farming”. (Accessed January 26, 2022). European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/eu-action/forests-and-agriculture/sustainable-carbon-cycles/carbon-farming_en
[xi] “EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: bringing nature back into our lives”. (May 20, 2020). European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/communication-annex-eu-biodiversity-strategy-2030_en.pdf
[xii] “A Greener and Fairer CAP”. (28 July, 2021). European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/food-farming-fisheries/key_policies/documents/factsheet-newcap-environment-fairness_en.pdf
[xiii] “One bite at a time: consumers and the transition to sustainable food.” (June 2020). The European Consumer Organisation. https://www.beuc.eu/publications/beuc-x-2020-042_consumers_and_the_transition_to_sustainable_food.pdf
[xvii] García de Jalón, S., Burgess, P.J., Graves, A. et al. (2018). How is agroforestry perceived in Europe? An assessment of positive and negative aspects by stakeholders. Agroforestry Systems, 92, 829-848. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10457-017-0116-3