Agroforestry is an intentional integration of trees on farmland.
Globally, it is practised by 1.2 billion people on 10 per cent area of total agricultural lands (over 1 billion hectares).
It is widely popular as ‘a low hanging fruit’ due to its multifarious tangible and intangible benefits.
The net carbon sequestered in agroforestry is 11.35 tonnes of carbon per ha
A panacea for global issues such as climate change, land degradation, pollution and food security, agroforestry is highlighted as a key strategy to fulfil several targets:
- Kyoto Protocol of 2001
- Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) as well as REDD+ mechanisms proposed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- United Nations-mandated Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDG)
- Paris Agreement
- Carbon Neutrality
In 2017, a New York Times bestseller Project Drawdown published by 200 scientists around the world with a goal of reversing climate change, came up with the most plausible 100 solutions to slash–down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Out of these 100 solutions, 11 strategies were highlighted under the umbrella of agroforestry such as:-
- multistrata agroforestry,
- tree intercropping,
- biomass production,
- regenerative agriculture,
- conservation agriculture,
- farmland restoration,
- tropical-staple tree,
- bamboo and indigenous tree–based land management.
Nowadays, tree-based farming in India is considered a silver bullet to cure all issues.
It was promoted under the Green India mission of 2001, six out of eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and National Agroforestry and Bamboo Mission (NABM), 2017 to bring a third of the geographical area under tree cover and offsetting GHG emissions.
These long-term attempts by the Government of India have helped enhance the agroforestry area to 13.75 million hectares.
The net carbon sequestered in agroforestry is 11.35 tonnes of carbon per ha and carbon sequestration potential is 0.35 tonnes of carbon per ha per year at the country level, according to the Central Agroforestry Research Institute, Jhansi.
India will reduce an additional 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 by increasing tree cover. This extra tree cover could be achieved through agroforestry systems because of their ability to withstand minimum inputs under extreme situations.
Here are some examples which portray the role of agroforestry in achieving at least nine out of the 17 SDGs through sustainable food production, ecosystem services and economic benefits:
SDG 1 — No Poverty: Almost 736 million people still live in extreme poverty. Diversification through integrating trees in agriculture unlocks the treasure to provide multifunctional benefits.
Studies carried out in 2003 in the arid regions of India reported a 10-15 per cent increase in crop yield with Prosopis cineraria (khejari). Adoption of agroforestry increases income & production by reducing the cost of input & production.
SDG 2 — Zero hunger: Tree-based systems provide food and monetary returns. Traditional agroforestry systems like Prosopis cineraria and Madhuca longifolia (Mahua) provide edible returns during drought years known as “lifeline to the poor people”.
Studies showed that 26-50 per cent of households involved in tree products collection and selling act as a coping strategy to deal with hunger.
SDG 3 — Good health and well-being: Human wellbeing and health are depicted through the extent of healthy ecosystems and services they provide.
Agroforestry contributes increased access to diverse nutritious food, supply of medicine, clean air and reduces heat stress.
Vegetative buffers can filter airstreams of particulates by removing dust, gas, microbial constituents and heavy metals.
SDG 5 — Gender equality: Throughout the world around 3 billion people depend on firewood for cooking.
In this, women are the main collectors and it brings drudgery and health issues.
A study from India stated that almost 374 hours per year are spent by women for collection of firewood. Growing trees nearby provides easy access to firewood and diverts time to productive purposes.
SDG 6 — Clean Water and Sanitation: Water is probably the most vital resource for our survival. The inherent capacity of trees offers hydrological regulation as evapotranspiration recharges atmospheric moisture for rainfall; enhanced soil infiltration recharges groundwater; obstructs sediment flow; rainwater filtration by accumulation of heavy metals.
An extensive study in 35 nations published in 2017 concluded that 30 per cent of tree cover in watersheds resulted in improved sanitisation and reduced diarrheal disease.
SDG 7 — Affordable & Clean Energy: Wood fuels are the only source of energy to billions of poverty-stricken people.
Though trees are substitutes of natural forests, modern technologies in the form of biofuels, ethanol, electricity generation and dendro-biomass sources are truly affordable and clean.
Ideal agroforestry models possess fast-growing, high coppicing, higher calorific value and short rotation (2-3 years) characteristics and provide biomass of 200-400 tonnes per ha.
SDG 12 — Responsible consumption and production: The production of agricultural and wood-based commodities on a sustainable basis without depleting natural resources and as low as external inputs (chemical fertilisers and pesticides) to reduce the ecological footprints.
SDG 13 — Climate action: Globally, agricultural production accounts for up to 24 per cent of GHG emissions from around 22.2 million square km of agricultural area, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
A 2016 study depicted that conversion of agricultural land to agroforestry sequesters about 27.2± 13.5 tonnes CO2 equivalent per ha per year after establishment of systems.
Trees on farmland mitigate 109.34 million tonnes CO2 equivalent annually from 15.31 million ha, according to a 2017 report. This may offset a third of the total GHG emissions from the agriculture sector of India.
SDG 15 — Life on Land: Agroforestry ‘mimics the forest ecosystem’ to contribute conservation of flora and faunas, creating corridors, buffers to existing reserves and multi-functional landscapes.
Delivery of ecosystem services of trees regulates life on land. A one-hectare area of homegardens in Kerala was found to have 992 trees from 66 species belonging to 31 families, a recent study showed.
The report of the World Agroforestry Centre highlighted those 22 countries that have registered agroforestry as a key strategy in achieving their unconditional national contributions.
Recently, the Government of India has allocated significant financial support for promotion of agroforestry at grassroot level to make the Indian economy as carbon neutral. This makes agroforestry a low-hanging fruit to achieve the global goals.