Public awareness of the importance of forests to the environment is mounting, from the fires in the Amazon and Australia to Ethiopia’s planting of a record-breaking 350 million trees.
And with the release of the last IPCC report, it is more apparent than ever that the world needs to rethink the relationship between farmland and forests to minimise the impact of climate change.
The answer may seem obvious: save more forests from conversion to agriculture. The truth, however, is that the two need not be exclusive. Planting more trees on farmland would provide a critical solution to both issues. It can both help farmers adapt to climate change, and generate a greater natural resilience against a warming planet.
Trees and crops
To achieve this, governments and farmers need to be much more strategic in meeting multiple needs, such as food and fuel on one side, and biodiversity and climate change on the other. With innovative land management, farmers can avoid apparent contradictions between trees and crops.
Such an approach can also help farmers in regions where temperatures are rising fastest, such as in the Sahel. Warming here is likely to reach between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius by 2050, reducing yields of basic grains within the next three decades.
Agroforestry or the practice of integrating trees with crops on farmland is the solution that can achieve this delicate balance.
Nearly half of agricultural land already has more than 10 per cent of tree cover, meaning farms are already capturing and storing around 0.74 billion tons of CO2 annually. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Given the billions of hectares of farmland suitable for tree cover, growing trees on agricultural land could be easily tripled, particularly in the most climate-vulnerable parts. If so, this would store at least 2.5 billion tons of CO2 per year, while at the same time increasing crop yields.
Not only would this help mitigate rising temperatures, but it would also offer much-needed dispersed shade to protect staple crops such as maize, millet, and sorghum. These crops might otherwise decline in yield by up to 40 per cent because of extreme temperatures during flowering.
And these benefits have knock-on, or “multiplier,” effects, making agroforestry a valuable way to turn competition between trees and crops to a significant mutual advantage.
Firstly, by learning how to better manage trees, crops, and livestock on their land, small-scale farmers, who make up the bulk of the world’s farming community, can improve soil fertility. Trees can reverse land degradation and help farmers become more productive.
Trees can contribute to healthier soils through their roots and litter. In this way, trees can make farms and pastures more resilient to extreme weather, better able to withstand moisture stress, and better protected from erosion by wind and water. Trees also help preserve the incredibly delicate and fertile topsoil, enhancing yields on farmland.
Secondly, our experience at Groundswell International has shown that increased tree cover also offers the chance to improve incomes for rural communities, with tree products providing additional inputs such as fodder for animals and fruit.
Often women – who are frequently less economically empowered than their male relatives - in developing economies benefit from this. With more trees on their land and regular pruning, rural women will have much-increased access to firewood for cooking and selling, improving diets and incomes.
And lastly, intensifying food production through agroforestry can reduce pressure to clear virgin forests for new agricultural lands, thereby preserving vital carbon capture and biodiversity.
Overall, planting more trees on farmland is a crucial strategy for “re-greening” initiatives designed to protect agricultural land from growing levels of desertification. Recent reports indicate, for example, that the Sahara Desert is significantly expanding as a result of climate change. Trees on farmland can prevent land degradation and build resilience in drier, arid conditions.
When it comes to tackling the world’s two primary challenges – transforming food systems while dealing with climate change - no other intervention can do what trees can. A nature-based solution through trees is the safest and least costly way forward for people and the planet.
The world need not choose between feeding its growing population and the survival of the planet. Re-greening for climate mitigation is not incompatible with feeding the world; they go hand in hand.
Peter Gubbels is co-founder, Groundswell International.
Image: UN Women, Flickr/Climate Visuals.