Industries in Depth

How regenerative agroforestry could solve the climate crisis

A tractor works on a wheat plantation on land that used to be virgin Amazon rainforest near the city of Santarem, Para State, April 20, 2013. The Amazon rainforest is being eaten away at by deforestation, much of which takes place as areas are burnt by large fires to clear land for agriculture. Initial data from Brazil's space agency suggests that destruction of the vast rainforest - the largest in the world - spiked by more than a third over the past year, wiping out an area more than twice the size of the city of Los Angeles. If the figures are borne out by follow-up data, they would confirm fears of scientists and environmental activists who warn that farming, mining and Amazon infrastructure projects, coupled with changes to Brazil's long-standing environmental policies, are reversing progress made against deforestation. Environmental issues will be under the spotlight as a United Nations Climate Change Conference opens in Warsaw, Poland on November 11. Picture taken on April 20, 2013.

Intensified, monoculture farming, drives land degradation and soil erosion, threatening biodiversity and food supplies Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Alexander Daniel
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Farming is responsible for almost 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Agriculture is the root cause of 80% of tropical deforestation.
  • Regenerative agroforestry, an agricultural method that mimics natural ecosystems, could help reverse these trends.

Our world is changing. The EU has just declared a climate emergency and stated that Europe must reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 - in the same year, our planet’s population is expected to hit 10 billion people. Global food production needs to prepare for an uncertain future and rising populations.

Climate, soil and farming: an intimate relationship

How we produce food is having a massive impact on our planet and driving the climate crisis. Farming is responsible for almost 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Land conversion and external inputs required for industrial agriculture lead to ecological dead-zones. Mechanization and commonly used synthetic fertilizers cause various emissions, while intensive management to raise crop yields releases carbon from the soil.

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Inefficiency threatens biodiversity

In many places, agriculture expands into biodiverse areas because of inefficient land-use. Researchers in Brazil found that cattle ranchers are only using Amazon farmland to 34% of its productive potential. Poor management practices, like overgrazing, mean that agriculture is the root cause of 80% of tropical deforestation.

Turning biodiversity-rich areas into intensified, monoculture farming, drives land degradation and soil erosion, threatening the world’s food supplies. According to the Director-General of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN), “the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk”.

Demands on arable land in more and less developed countries
Demands on arable land in more and less developed countries Image: Farming First
Small to no profits for farmers

Market pressures force farmers globally to intensify agriculture and focus on short-term investment returns. Because of soil degradation, they increasingly rely on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to maintain productivity. As costs rise, earnings shrink and farmers become trapped in debt, taking out yearly loans to pay for external inputs.

In the UK, 25% of farming households live under the poverty line and in the US, half of the farms are losing money. This year, farmers have protested in the Netherlands, Germany, and Indonesia, where hundreds of people were arrested. Farmers are frustrated because conventional farming is no longer able to provide a livelihood.

Climate crisis for farming

Global farming has reached a crisis point. Intensified land use and inefficient human systems threaten food security and drive biodiversity loss and climate change. Half the world’s fertile soil is already lost and, with an estimated 60 years of topsoil left, we need a farming strategy that restores soil and secures food production.

It is possible to put global agriculture into a climate-smart future and the solution already exists. Practised around the world, it’s known as regenerative agroforestry.

Which sectors contribute to greenhouse gas emissions?
Which sectors contribute to greenhouse gas emissions? Image: FAO
Regenerative agroforestry: farming in nature’s image

Regenerative agroforestry is an agricultural method that mimics natural ecosystems. Through holistic management and smart design, various components like crops, trees, plants and livestock combine to form a diverse, self-sustaining production system.

This method puts agriculture back into the landscape and improves the resilience of food production against the impacts of climate change. Its systems can withstand droughts, pests and floods much better than conventional systems.

Boosting soil fertility and biodiversity

Healthy soils are the backbone of our supply chains. The diversity of plant life within an agroforestry system boosts soil fertility. Beyond fostering food production, this prevents soil erosion, regulates water cycles, sequesters carbon and controls pests and weeds.

Farming with nature, not against it, makes farmland habitable again for a vast array of animals and insects. That is crucial for food production: 87 of the world’s leading food crops rely on pollinators. By mimicking natural systems, regenerative agroforestry creates a stronger foundation for farming.

Enhancing agricultural capacities

Regenerative agroforestry enhances agricultural productivity. The diversity of plants creates biomass throughout the year, fertilizing the soil and increasing crop yields while providing fodder for livestock. Moreover, planting trees on a farm protects crops from wind and sunlight.

In Brazil, agroforestry cocoa is three times more productive than in monocultures. Across Malawi and Zambia, farmers mixing crops with so-called “fertilizer trees”, have boosted maize yields to 400% of the national average. Meanwhile, cattle grazing in agroforestry systems in Colombia is healthier and produces up to 5 litres more milk a day.

By enhancing agriculture, we improve the efficiency of land use and eliminate the need to expand into pristine, biodiversity-rich areas.

Improving farmer livelihoods

Farming systems which focus on one income stream, such as cattle or coffee, are financially vulnerable. If the market crashes or drought impacts crop yields, farmers can be left without income. The diversity of regenerative agroforestry creates various income streams and increases economic resilience.

A project in Indonesia, for example, combines the cultivation of white pepper with various other products. Next to these, farmers grow mangos, bananas and timber, which can be sold locally or used for family consumption. Tanzanian farmers, mix lucrative cash crops, such as cardamom, with by-products, like bananas, beans and maize. Trees can be grown on steep slopes or where soils are poor, allowing farmers to make the most of their available space.

Agroforestry contour planting in Australia
Agroforestry contour planting in Australia
Turning degraded land into carbon sinks

Regenerative agroforestry sequesters significantly more carbon than industrial agriculture and can help to restore degraded land. According to UN Scientists, restoring 900 million hectares could stabilize global GHG emissions for 15-20 years. With agroforestry, we can transform degraded land into food-growing carbon sinks.

Regenerative agroforestry: a major solution

Regenerative agroforestry is a resilient and future-proof agricultural method that could help solve the climate crisis. This smart farming system enables economically viable production while restoring land, mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity and enhancing food security for growing populations.

It’s a nature-based practice that is globally applicable and affordable and we already know how to implement it. Regenerative agroforestry is one of the most promising solutions to today and tomorrow’s biggest global challenges.

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Related topics:
Industries in DepthClimate ActionNature and Biodiversity
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