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Crucial Synergy Between Agriculture and Forestry

Picture credit: Regenerative Food and Farming

When considering the delicate balance between the expansion of agricultural activities and environmental preservation, the synergy between agriculture and forest emerges as a major aspect of sustainable land management. Not only does this symbiotic relationship affect the growing demands for food production but it also contributes significantly to biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and the overall well-being of our planet.

Agriculture is inexorably linked to land exploitation. This conventional cultivation approach often involves clearing extensive areas of forests to make way for crops. The practice, though providing immediate space for planting and growing, has far-reaching ecological consequences, leading to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and disruptions in ecosystems.

According to an estimate done by F. Pendrill et al. and published in Science last year, between 6.4 million and 8.8 million hectares (i.e., 15.8 million and 21.7 million acres) of tropical forests are to be lost to agriculture every year. If we consider all forests, the figure rises to ten million hectares, with remarkable differences between countries.

Only 18% of the world’s forests are located on land protected from deforestation. In 2020, 25.8 million hectares of forest were lost, about twice the amount of forested land lost in 2001. The pace at which we lose the “lungs of the planet” is equivalent to 27 soccer fields per minute. You can find more statistics on deforestation here.

Recognising the environmental toll of illegal deforestation, governments and society are increasingly supporting sustainable agriculture and reforestation practices. Integrating agriculture with appropriate tree planting or merging practices can yield numerous benefits.

Agroforestry is a way of managing land that combines tree and shrub planting with traditional agricultural crops and pasture. This approach not only optimises land use but also enhances the health of an overall ecosystem.

The Soil Association identifies two main types of agroforestry:

1. Silvo-pastoral agroforestry. The animals graze under the trees, enriching the soil while the trees provide shelter and fodder to them.

2. Silvo-arable agroforestry. In this case, crops are grown beneath the trees, often in rows that are large enough for a tractor to tend to the crops without damaging the trees. The trees and the crops stand on distinct levels above and below ground, where the tree roots will reach down deeper than the crops.

‘Other types of agroforestry include hedgerows and buffer strips, forest farming - cultivation within a forest environment, and home gardens for agroforestry on small scales in mixed or urban settings’ (Soil Association).

Another benefit of agroforestry is the presence of wildlife visiting the trees. Natural predators living or stopping on trees may hunt for pests in the crops, hence reducing the use of chemical pesticides by farmers.

One of the primary advantages of agroforestry is its positive impact on biodiversity. If a landscape includes both agricultural and forested areas, a convenient habitat for a variety of plant and animal species will exist. This diverse ecosystem encourages natural pollinators, pest controllers, and soil enrichers, promoting a more balanced and resilient agricultural system.

Furthermore, trees turn into valuable carbon sinks, playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change. In an agroforestry system, their function offsets the carbon emissions produced by agricultural activities.

Soil health is another area where the marriage of agriculture and forest demonstrates its efficacy. Trees in agroforestry systems help prevent soil erosion, enhance water retention, and improve overall soil fertility. The root systems of trees create a network that stabilises the soil structure, reducing the risk of nutrient runoff and ensuring sustainable agricultural productivity.

The relationship between agriculture and forestation is evolving into a model of harmony that prioritises ecological sustainability. Agroforestry shows that the potential for arable land and forest coexistence is real, demonstrating that food production and environmental conservation are not mutually exclusive.

As the world grapples with the challenges of feeding a growing population and reversing climate change, embracing methodology and techniques linking agriculture and forestation has become a necessity to develop a more resilient future.

- Marina Novokhatska

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