As the world races to reduce carbon emissions, a new scientific review published in Nature Climate Change underscores the untapped potential of agroforestry as a natural climate solution in the fight to secure a sustainable future. In fact, global estimates suggest that agroforestry—defined as the deliberate incorporation of trees in agricultural landscapes—is potentially the largest single contribution the agricultural sector can make towards climate change, and roughly comparable at a global level to more prominent strategies like reforestation.
The review was led by global environment nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in collaboration with other internationally recognized organizations across Europe, Latin America, Africa and North America. It found that despite the enormous potential of agroforestry, there is a need for further research into how to best deploy this natural climate solution in agricultural systems around the world.
“We have the know-how and the space to add more trees to global farmlands”, said lead author Drew Terasaki Hart, a Computational Ecologist at TNC. “Science can help identify the places where agroforestry development has the largest potential for climate change mitigation, while supporting agricultural production and providing multiple other benefits including wildlife habitat.”
Aside from providing substantial climate mitigation potential, agroforestry can also improve crop yields and diversify farm incomes; enhance the sustainability and climate resilience of food production systems; create habitat for biodiversity; and protect people and livestock from extreme heat and other weather events, among other benefits. In regions where agriculture is a major driver of deforestation, such as Brazil, the improved farmer livelihoods that agroforestry practices offer can also help to reduce or even reverse forest loss. For example, in the eastern portion of the Brazilian Amazon, agroforestry systems are being planted in abandoned pasture areas on small rural properties.
“The cycle of pasture expansion often begins with small-scale deforestation, followed by the use of fire to clear the area and plant pasture, and culminates, a few years later, with the degradation and abandonment of the land,” said co-author Edenise Garcia, Brazil Science Director at TNC. “As a sustainable economic alternative that generates jobs, agroforestry constitutes an effective mechanism for interrupting this cycle.”
Silvopasture is an agroforestry practice that intentionally integrates trees and pasture and forage crops into a single system for raising livestock.
Despite their potential as a low-cost and immediately available natural climate solution, climate-focused agroforestry efforts are currently under-leveraged. This is largely due to ambiguity about which agroforestry actions provide carbon mitigation, alongside uncertainty as to their full sequestration potential, and difficulty in tracking the progress of agroforestry practices.
Agroforestry comes in many different forms, including a variety of Indigenous, traditional, and modern farming practices—from ancient Roman farmers interlacing their fields with olive trees, to communities in the Amazon Basin combining forest stewardship with small-scale production of lucrative tropical crops like cacao and coffee.
“This diversity brings both benefits and challenges,” said senior author Susan Cook-Patton, a Senior Forest Restoration Scientist at TNC. “While this vast menu of options means farmers can more easily find an agroforestry system that will work for them, it also challenges scientists’ ability to determine how much climate mitigation any given system will offer.”
To help achieve the best climate outcomes, the collaborators behind this study came together to identify the critical science gaps currently impeding the deployment of agroforestry practices at scale. The resulting review had three key findings. First, it showed that even using the best-available estimates from the likes of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others, there is still a lack of understanding around how much carbon an individual agroforestry system can hold and how that varies from farm to farm. It also highlighted a lack of knowledge about where agroforestry currently occurs, suggesting that existing maps overlook some of the most carbon-rich agroforestry systems in the world. Finally, the review found that agroforestry adoption and ambition are not distributed equally across the world. Whereas certain African countries in particular are at the forefront of global agroforestry efforts, in other regions, particularly the Global North, there is ample room for expansion of these practices, given the right incentives.
“In many regions, trees have been increasingly removed from farms, especially in the Global North,” said co-author Rémi Cardinael, a researcher at CIRAD. “Agroforestry could be a smarter way to restore forest to these regions, compared with large scale reforestation projects that may be more vulnerable to disturbance, while also offering more direct benefits to farmers.”
The researchers advocate for farmer-focused steps to accelerate investment in agroforestry for climate mitigation, while also enhancing the resilience and sustainability of food systems worldwide. In an effort to improve existing measurements on the potential of agroforestry, the researchers are now working to consolidate the information that already exists across thousands of often hard-to-access scientific papers.
“With the world’s land increasingly squeezed by competing demands for food, fiber, and fuel, we need to both produce more food and reduce carbon emissions,” said Fred Stolle, deputy director of the Forests program at World Resources Institute and another co-author on the paper. “Agroforestry is a critical way we can meet both goals at once.”
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Terasaki Hart D.E., Yeo S., Almaraz M., Beillouin D., Cardinael R., Garcia E., Kay S., Lovell S.T., Rosenstock T.S., Sprenkle-Hyppolite S., Stolle F., Suber M., Thapa B., Wood S., Cook-Patton S.C. Priority Science Can Accelerate Agroforestry as a Natural Climate Solution. Nature Climate Change.
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.