Could agroforestry help decarbonise food production?

Could agroforestry help decarbonise food production?

Agroforestry isn’t a new land practice – it’s been around for centuries. But now, in Southern Appalachia, a US-based initiative called Carbon Harvest is helping farms embrace agroforestry as part of the development of a new carbon market.

The goal is to help farmers implement carbon-capture practices on their land – which will serve the dual purpose of generating income from the carbon capture market, and producing food with a smaller carbon footprint.

What is agroforestry?

It’s a land practice based on developing animal farming systems that include trees and shrubs, in order to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Those benefits can include:

  • Increasing yields of staple food crops
  • Improving the livelihood of farmers, as a result of additional income from the carbon market
  • Increasing biodiversity
  • Improving soil quality and structure
  • Reducing land erosion

In the US, indigenous communities have leveraged agroforestry for hundreds of years. Now, these techniques are being promoted more widely; and they’re presented as a part of the solution to global problems including food security and sustainable farming.

Carbon offset on a smaller scale

Around the world, the majority of carbon offset programs for farms are designed for large-scale monocrop producers. But as Civil Eats reports, Carbon Harvest is working to create an alternative market in Southern Appalachia – aimed specifically at small farms.

The goal is to help farmers create and monitor carbon sequestration in order to create the country’s first regional carbon offset market; and trees are key to Carbon Harvest’s strategy. The US Department of Agriculture’s COMET-Farm tool estimates that other, more widespread carbon offset tactics, like adding legume cover crops to fields used for annual crop growth, sequester about one tonne of CO2 per acre each year. But planting trees or shrubs in animal pasture land captures more than 4X as much carbon.

The market isn’t live yet, but the initiative is already helping farmers set up agroforestry systems – so that when the market does go live, they’re ready to tap straight in and start receiving payments.

Agroforestry on small farms can benefit farmers, decarbonise food, and offer an alternative carbon market to businesses

Agroforestry can help to decarbonise food production – storing carbon, increasing biodiversity, and improving water management.

At the same time, it offers businesses across industries an alternative carbon offset market to buy into. If that market grows successfully, then agroforestry could be a self-sustaining and profitable solution for carbon capture; with the on-the-ground tree planting and management processes handled by farmers on their land.

And within all of that, it gives farmers the opportunity to increase their income, and enable them to continue producing food on a small scale – contributing to food security and sustainable food production in their region.

So if it’s implemented effectively, agroforestry could be a win-win-win. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its own unique challenges. It’s a practice that blends together a range of different components, and requires people with diverse knowledge to collaborate in order to create and run a successful program. As the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN points out, you need animal care specialists, landscape planners, agronomists, foresters, economists, soil analysts – to name just a few of the skill sets involved.

And this diversity of disciplines is complicated. It demands collaboration, a high level of communication and cross-industry understanding, and complex coordination. If all of those elements come into play successfully, though, the necessary diversity can also become agroforestry’s greatest strength.

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