The low hanging fruit of agroforestry

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The low hanging fruit of agroforestry

Sunday, 13 June 2021 | Elisa Vallette / Sijo Abraham

India was the first country to adopt a national agroforestry policy in 2014. However, most farmers are reluctant to embrace this ecologically and socially sound practice due to lack of policy support, write Elisa Vallette & Sijo Abraham

Agroforestry designates land-use systems that deliberately integrate woody perennials (trees, shrubs, palms, bamboo, etc.) with crops or animals. The “forest” within the “agroforestry” can be an existing native forest, the edge of a forest or a planted forest by the land’s owner. But agroforestry should not be reduced to the addition of trees. Agroforestry is a regenerative agricultural practice which, through topsoil regeneration, enables biosequestration that is the capture and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Moreover, agroforestry seeks to optimise the vibrant interplays within local ecosystems to make farms more productive, self-sustained and resilient without a lot of external human inputs. Indeed, the dynamic ecological equilibrium between trees and crops increases biodiversity while improving natural water cycles and enhancing ecosystem services.

Despite its ancient origins, the practice of agroforestry declined at the expense of intensive agriculture promoted during the green revolution in the 1970s. Today, the agriculture sector suffers from climate change while still largely contributing to it. Indeed, agriculture is responsible for 16% of India’s annual greenhouse gases emissions, making it the second most polluting sector. However, the flip side of the coin is that climate change threatens agriculture, on which about 58% of India’s population depend on as their primary source of livelihood. Thus, increased socio-environmental concerns have sparked renewed interests for agroforestry practises. Agroforestry provides the opportunity to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions from agriculture, capturing atmospheric carbon, while simultaneously helping farmers to adapt to harsher climate conditions. Already practised on 13.5 million hectares in India, the potential to expand is enormous, especially for the 80% of small-holders farmers in the country with two hectares of land or less. Numerous low-hanging fruits stem from tapping into this potential.

While at first glance agroforestry did not seem profitable, today’s socio-environmental crisis makes this long-neglected practise an undeniable solution. According to the Restoration Opportunities Atlas, India has 87 million hectares of land that could benefit from agroforestry. 952.5 million tons of above-ground carbon could be sequestered by just a 20% increase in tree cover. Beyond climate change mitigation, agroforestry farmers are better equipped against climate variations. Although decades of intensive agriculture have depleted soils and threatened natural ecosystem services, regenerative agriculture could repair these damages and conserve soils.

For instance, while agriculture devours and tends to contaminate water, agroforestry favours and takes advantage of natural water cycles. Also, scientific evidence shows that trees stimulate evaporation and transpiration thereby increasing local rainfalls. Then, as the roots of trees extend deeper than annual crops, water can more easily infiltrate into the ground, preventing floods and making communities resilient in the face of natural disasters.

Roots also take up nutrients from deeper layers of soil that otherwise cannot be reached by the crops and prevent the groundwater from being contaminated by excess fertilizers or manures. In addition to efficient water management, a forest’s inherent native biodiversity helps prevent pest attacks and soil erosion. Therefore, agroforestry allows restoration of depleted soils, maintenance of biodiversity and climate resilience.

These environmental benefits coincide with socio-cultural positive externalities for farmers and consumers. Indeed, agroforestry diversifies types of crops, makes harvests more resilient, and therefore secures farmers’ livelihood. It also boosts agricultural productivity since, on smaller plots of land, agroforestry grows more food than mono-crops per hectare, alleviating the current pressure on land. This maximisation of potential yields is all the more pleasing as harvests prove to be more nutritious. Therefore, agroforestry provides hope for long-term food security to a growing nation. However, several barriers prevent agroforestry from becoming a mainstream practice.

First, since 2014, the policy rather than alleviating political obstacles has added confusion. Indeed, the creation of a national agroforestry board, which aimed at aligning existing programmes and providing better coordination between the ministries of agriculture, forest and rural development, never gained enough authority. Therefore, despite successfully simplifying regulations, the enabling legal environment is shadowed by an ambiguous governance system.

Secondly, the policy offers farmers extension services and capacity-building training. However, inadequate awareness failed to popularise these policy initiatives. Non-governmental organisations such as Saytrees, who have helped more than 700 farmers, planting 1500 fruit trees over the past 4 years, act as useful bridges between national programs and on-the-ground realities.

Wider local-knowledge dissemination might still be insufficient to overcome farmers’ reluctance since at first sight, agroforestry might not seem profitable. Indeed, yields might decrease in the first few years until the soil quality has fully recovered. To countervail perceived risks during the transition phase, the policy should provide safety nets so the farmers can change without risking their livelihood in addition to information about agroforestry’s longer-term benefits.

Another major obstacle the policy failed to address is the lack of clear land ownership rights which discourages farmers from planting trees, perceived as a long term investment. Social discriminations along with gender, caste or tribal lines further force farmers to focus on short term yields and profits. Therefore, for the agroforestry policy to be successful, it is essential to first clarify land tenure rights while subsidising access to land, water, technology and credit across caste and communal barriers.

Finally, despite the stated objective of the policy to boost market linkages, rural farmers still encounter difficulties to find outlets for these products. However, the growing demand given the popularity to buy local, organic and nutritious-indigenous varieties, should incentivise farmers to overcome these supply-chain gaps.

To conclude, despite the agroforestry policy seeking to extract agroforestry’s tremendous benefits, farmers still face many challenges to make the transition. Therefore, complementary services and additional support, especially during the transition phase, should work in synergy with the agroforestry policy. India has already established itself to be a global agricultural powerhouse and by the successful implementation of agroforestry, it could champion sustainable agriculture and inspire other nations to adopt and implement similar policies.

The writers are Fellow, Anant Fellowship for Climate Action

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