The untapped green potential of agroforestry
The practice of having trees on farms simulates nature. This aligns with our heritage farming, enriching the ecosystem’s biodiversity with trees complementary to crops. The loss of biodiversity in ecosystems is closely linked to the emergence of pandemics. Deforestation, changes in forest habitat, monocultural farming, poorly managed agricultural landscapes and runaway urbanisation impact the composition of wildlife species, disturbing the niches that harbour micro-organisms and protract the interface with humans.
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Agroforestry keeps the pressure off natural forests and contributes to reducing man-animal conflicts. There would be more deforestation if it were not for trees outside forests that are the source of over 70% of the timber used commercially in India. Agroforestry meets almost half of the fuelwood needs, about two-thirds of the small timber demand, 70-80% of the plywood demand, 60% of the raw material for paper pulp and 9-11% of the country’s green fodder requirement. Tree-based systems produce lac, gum, resins, and products of medicinal value.
Agroforestry helps diversify the income stream of farmers to buffer risks, while providing environmental benefits from deep-rooted perennials. Tree-based farming systems lead to improved livelihoods, better nutrition, women’s empowerment, revitalised soils, nutrient recycling, cleaner water, less polluted air, productive and resilient cropping environments, together with carbon sequestration both above and below the ground.
Agroforestry meets the triple-win indicators of climate-smart agriculture, i.e., increased productivity and cash incomes, adaptation to the climate crisis, and mitigation of greenhouse gases (GHG). A catchy slogan for promoting agroforestry is gradually taking root — har medh par pedh (trees on every field boundary).
While tree-based farming is as old as settled cultivation, agroforestry came into the field of scientific enquiry and policy intervention more recently. The World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi is the leader. India was first in the world to adopt a National Agroforestry Policy in 2014, coinciding with the Third World Agroforestry Congress in New Delhi, convened on the Trees for Life theme. A national mission on agroforestry technology and practices was established under the agriculture ministry. Most states set up their own missions, either in the agriculture or forest departments.
The significance of agroforestry as a carbon sink for achieving India’s GHG mitigation commitments is well-recognised. The ministry of environment, forests and climate change, in its report of 2018, Strategy for Increasing Green Cover Outside Recorded Forest Areas, has highlighted its critical role in reducing the carbon footprint. Though estimates vary about the area under agroforestry, The Indian State of Forest Report 2013 put it at about 11 million hectares while the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Central Agroforestry Research Institute reported it at 25 million hectares. Considering the largeness of India’s agriculture, the potential of agroforestry is game-changing.
Land repair and restitution of soil health is intrinsic to agroforestry practices. India has committed itself to restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030, announced when Delhi hosted the UN conference for combating desertification in 2019. The earlier target was 21 million. Agroforestry reverses land degradation. It neutralises climate impact. The theme for World Environment Day (June 5) this year is aligned with the UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration (2020-2030). The National Forest Policy 1988 had set a visionary goal of increasing green cover to 33% of geographical area, the current being about 25%.
With so much to recommend it, why has agroforestry not yet acquired the mega-scale it deserves or become the movement reflecting its potential?
For a long time, the subject fell between the two stools of “agriculture” and “forestry”, with the sector often referred to as trees-outside-forests. There is a strong case for increasing public and private investment in agroforestry for the creation of economic and natural capital. There is a need to reconcile the widely varying estimates of area under agroforestry with the aid of remote sensing, GPS and GIS tools and technologies. The lack of a mechanism for convergence and coordination has handicapped the framing of a fuller picture about the contribution of fruit, timber and fodder trees in block plantations, homestead gardens and field boundaries.
The incentivisation of farmers to scale-up adoption of tree-based farming envisages simple working regimes for felling and transportation of trees; development of adequate quality planting material; certification; the leveraging of bank loans for tree plantation; insurance cover; security of land tenure; and tax rationalisation on wood and tree products to promote wood-based industry. Agroforestry will lead to diversification of farmer incomes, thereby addressing vulnerability to climate-related risks. But, the marketing of tree-based products is not as streamlined as staple crops. To create fair value-chains alternative marketing channels such as farmer-producer organisations need to be fostered.
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It is estimated that agroforestry is globally offsetting about a third of total agricultural emissions. This has the potential of making the agriculture sector emissions-neutral by 2050 provided constraints to upscaling are overcome. Tony Simons, director-general of the World Agroforestry Centre, views trees on farms as a “back to the future” concept, heralding a return to the origins of farming. India’s experience is well placed to craft a roadmap for transiting to a greener post-Covid-19 economy with agroforestry.