‘Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy.’ ~Issac Newton
The recently released annual reports (including sustainability and CSR reports) of some of India’s largest public sector undertakings and large business entities have one thing in common. They all claim commitment to the same vision – to be carbon-neutral by 203o.
But how do they mean to achieve that? Curious as usual, Team CauseBecause reached out to sustainability and CSR decision makers at a few corporate houses to find out what they would do differently and what new interventions they would adopt in order for them to meet their praiseworthy vision. Interestingly, all these leaders have another thing in common. They are all looking at maximising the social, economic and environmental benefits – carbon sequestration to mitigate the company’s footprints – from their CSR investments. Unsurprisingly, many companies at this point are looking at supporting initiatives focused at creation of carbon sinks by following the agroforestry model.
Team CauseBecause spent the last few months delving into researches focused at environment conservation, carbon sequestration, carbon sinks creation, and rejuvenation of forests and biodiversity done by various credible institutions, and also spoke to environmentalists, officials in relevant government departments and sustainability and CSR heads at some of the largest corporate houses in the country.
The insights gained had substantial evidence for us to believe that agroforestry might so far be the best intervention that would give all those sought-after socio-enviro-economic outcomes, not to forget some brand-value brownies, while doing a fair-enough bit for the planet – securing the future of a whopping 9.8 billion of them (or us?) who will be living on Earth in 2050, which is less than 30 years away.
For the benefit of the corporations, institutions and social entities who can, may, and/or must do their bit (and more) towards popularising the agroforestry concept, we are sharing here its 7 direct benefits.
Agroforestry – a simplified introduction for CSR and sustainability professionals
In our experience, the more you read about agroforestry, or the more you talk about it with PhD holders and professors or experts at research organisations, the more complex and daunting the concept may seem. But, take our word for it, it does not have to be that way.
To understand the fundamental concept, one must go back into history—not that far, just about 10,000 years ago. It was the Neolithic era or the New Stone Age when our hunter-gatherer ancestors thought of settling down and grow their own food. They started chopping jungles (which was not a sin at that point of time, just like it is no sin to dig oil today) and started growing wheat, peas, lentils… Ever since, agriculture has continued to play a significant role in human civilisation. It employs a majority of the human population and practically feeds the entire world.
It so happened that over time farmers or agricultural communities as well as urban populations started to see forests and agricultural land as two separate parts of the earth. However, this notion is entirely misplaced, because the whole of the agricultural land of today was once a forest of some type. And agroforestry is an attempt to alter the usage of the supposed agricultural land in a way that it can accommodate a bit of forest.
There are three types of agroforestry systems, the most common being the agrisilvicultural systems where crops and trees are combined (such as alley cropping or home gardens). Silvopastoral systems combine forestry and grazing of domesticated animals on pastures, rangelands, or on farms. When all the three elements – trees, animals and crops – are integrated, it is called agro-silvopastoral.
Simply speaking, in agroforestry, shrubs, trees, grasses and bamboos, basically the woody perennials, are grown and nourished along with crops on the same land. This idealistic merger is now being adopted into mainstream farming because of its enormous environmental and socioeconomic benefits. Successful agroforestry models have proven that integrating trees within agricultural systems helps in increased agricultural productivity, reduced hunger and poverty, women’s empowerment, biodiversity support, regenerated soils, enhanced farm resilience, and improved and diversified diets for communities, all of which result in climate-change mitigation.
Interestingly, agroforestry has been recognised by more than 140 countries and has been incorporated in education and training programmes at an unprecedented level since the late 1980s. A survey of educational institutions conducted by The International Council for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) in 1987 revealed that agroforestry is found as an option for specialisation in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, as well as diploma programmes in forestry, agriculture, natural resources, etc., and many students have also been choosing agroforestry-oriented research projects for their dissertations. All institutions disseminating education in agroforestry have accepted and appreciated its benefits in soil and environment conservation and its capability of combining wood and food production.
The 7 Reasons
1. Combats impact of climate change
Agriculture, land use and forestry are among the large emitters of greenhouse gases. Emissions stem from deforestation, livestock production, and soil and nutrient management. While being a source of emissions, agriculture is also negatively impacted by climate change, resulting for instance in consistently decreasing crop yields.
So, what makes agroforestry a mitigation solution, whereas conventional agriculture is a climate-change driver?
Here’s why: agroforestry unfurls the magic of trees.
Trees on agricultural lands have great carbon mitigation potential. Generally, trees in plains or on agriculture lands are not accounted for when global and national carbon budgets are determined, but are accepted as a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) used to offset emissions from higher-income countries.
Studies show that agroforestry increases carbon storage not just in above-ground biomass (that is, stems, branches and foliage) but also below the ground through enhanced root production and organic material from roots and falling leaves and litter that gets incorporated into the soil, thus enhancing its capacity to sequester carbon.
Although agroforestry does not store as much carbon as forested areas, it does store more carbon than pastures and fields with annual/seasonal crops. Cautious estimates indicate that agricultural land converted to agroforestry has the potential to annually sequester anywhere from 13.5 tons to 27.2 tons CO2 per hectare, at least for the first 14 years after establishment.
The global mitigation potential, based on the assumption that 20 per cent of the world’s 630 million hectares of unproductive agricultural land is suitable for agroforestry, can be estimated somewhere between 1.7 billion tons and 3.4 billion tonnes per year. Total annual global greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 were estimated at about 51.9 billion.
The graph illustrates land-use systems in the tropics and their potential to store carbon. The bars within each category represent different case studies. Source: Verchot et al. Updated and reproduced by CauseBecause.
2. Creates resilience against climate shocks
Agroforestry can buffer climate extremes. It has the potential to absorb the serious shocks that the climate has started to give us all. This system of agriculture gives an opportunity to improve the Earth as also local communities’ resilience against calamities such as droughts and floods.
As agroforestry propagates diverse farming and multiple types of produce – crops and fruits or herbs, it can help reduce the vulnerability of farmers’ livelihoods. Reliance on a single crop, depleting groundwater, diminishing quality of soil, unpredictable rains and storms, and surprise raids by insects (remember the recent locust attack?) are farmers’ major worries – and ours too, because our food is at stake.
Conventional agriculture is often harmful to soil and its productivity. It destroys its living organisms and its sensitive structure, and takes away important nutrients. Yet, soils are essential for human wellbeing. Agroforestry can turn this development around as it can improve and preserve soil conditions. Trees and plants protect soil from flushing or blowing away, while dead plant materials retain water in the soil and nurture living soil organisms. All of those benefits are vital for productive agriculture.
Hardwood trees mixed with conifers planted in and around the farmland also prevent soil erosion, which is a major cause of floods. Trees also improve the micro-climate by shading crops and cooling the surrounding air by increasing the transpiration.
3. Aids in the conservation of biodiversity
While agroforestry is a diverse system in itself, it also supports life in its surroundings. Birds and insects – which strengthen the ecosystem – get diverse food, enhanced shelter and equitable habitat in areas under agroforestry.
Likewise, a wheat plantation offers a lot more protection from wind, rain and predators when it is combined with hedges or rows of trees on their boundaries. Moreover, pesticide applications that harm insect populations are reduced or completely abolished in agroforestry.
Agroforestry also restores and maintains the topsoil – the ‘liveliest’ material on earth. In agroforestry, this top layer is covered with dead organic elements such as leaves and pruned branches, which not only protect the soil and keep water from evaporating, but also feed living organisms such as earthworms and other insects that happen to be fodder for birds. Some of these organisms are also a food source for families of rodents such as squirrels and rats, which in turn are prey for larger species. In this way, agroforestry helps balance the ecosystem and adds great value to the natural food chain.
4. Boosts women empowerment
As per Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), women provide 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in lower- to middle-income countries, but are just representing 13 per cent of the landowners. In general, female farmers are disproportionally affected by climate change, as they have less access to credit, agricultural inputs, and extension services.
For such women, agroforestry can provide many empowerment opportunities. Firstly, agroforestry requires less input than conventional agriculture and can therefore be accessible for female farmers with limited resources and credit.
Secondly, agroforestry provides many products that can empower women by freeing up their time. In many regions across India, women and girls are tasked with time-consuming activities like collecting firewood and fodder for animals. When these products become available at the farm, more time can be spent on income-generating activities or education.
Women are frequently responsible for small-stock husbandry and the feeding of larger livestock, particularly milk cows and calves. Thus, agroforestry projects that involve fodder trees, the servicing of crops by trees, or intercropping of crops and trees must include women, since it is often women who grow the crops or care for the livestock that will be involved.
Collecting firewood, animal fodder and fruits is also an important coping mechanism for women during years with low yields. Not surprisingly, studies show that women in general choose to plant trees that increase availability of firewood, animal fodder and fruits, while men tend to focus on fast-growing, timber-producing trees.
FAO researches say that gender roles are reflected in ownership of trees and associated products. Women tend to benefit from tree products, mostly fruits, with a lower commercial value. The composition and design of an agroforestry system therefore affects opportunities for women’s empowerment.
5. Is good for health
Imagine a monotonous one-crop farm and then compare it to a land where crops are surrounded by varied species of trees, shrubs, herbs, or vegetables, in what is a vibrant illustration of agroforestry. You will agree that a walk through the latter will be a much more fulfilling and invigorating experience than making your way through a standalone mustard field.
Agroforestry gives us a sense of the abundance of life.
Also, as agroforestry replicates nature’s order, the populations living in the vicinity have better health and are at reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as ailments caused by air pollution. More so, if one is also sourcing and consuming the organic produce from there, they are bound to be healthier than their counterparts who get their food from traditional farms.
Studies have also shown that populations living closer to nature, even those who are in urban areas where farmlands are balanced with agroforestry, experience minimal stress and anxiety.
6. Promotes wellbeing of farm animals and healthier dairy and meat
Agroforestry provides an opportunity for improving the wellbeing of farm animals. In the silvopastoral system of agroforestry, cattle, sheep, or chicken can roam around freely and live out their instincts like they would in the wild. Chickens, for example, are forest animals and feel more comfortable when having the shelter and protection of trees around on their outdoor pastures, and tend to lay more eggs in such conditions. Likewise, domestic animals such as cows and buffaloes are happy moving around freely in green pastures; they also lactate more compared to animals that are tied and kept in enclosures.
Researches have proven that animals that have an active life, enough space to move, and open environments wherein they feel free also produce healthier meats. FAO recommends efficient, experienced and quiet handling of livestock, including taking measures to eliminate pain and reduce stress in the animals and prevent quality deficiencies in meat.
It is to be noted that animals brought up in the silvopastoral system have a higher glycogen content in their muscles. After the animal is slaughtered, the glycogen in the muscle is converted into lactic acid, and the muscle and carcass become firm due to setting in of rigor mortis. This lactic acid is necessary to produce tender and tasteful meat of good quality and colour. However, if the animal is stressed before and during slaughter, the muscled glycogen is used up and the lactic acid level that develops in the meat after slaughter is reduced, resulting in adverse effects on meat quality.
7. Acts as a natural pest control
Agroforestry has proven to be an effective preventer of pests that are harmful to precious crops. These could be animals, weeds, or fungi that eat or compete with fruit and vegetable plants. Especially long-lived trees and shrubs such as coffee, cocoa or bananas are less likely to suffer from pests in agroforestry systems.
This is – among other reasons – because agroforestry systems contain more plants and animal species than purely agricultural systems. More insects, birds, and other organisms mean that harmful species face more natural enemies such as predators or competitors that keep their numbers low – it is a natural control system. This way, valuable food crops are naturally protected. Furthermore, harmful weeds have a hard time spreading in an agroforestry system, as they do not cope well with the shade provided by trees.
Looking at the potential outcomes and impacts, as well as its role in safeguarding the planet and enhancing food security for its people, especially the poor and vulnerable communities, agroforestry is undoubtedly one of the best investments that any socially responsible corporate can be making.
Also, all the companies that are committing to go carbon-neutral know it quite well that there are only limited measures that they can take within their operations. Using more renewable energy, water-efficient processes, green mobility and waste management and recycling practices are needed but may not be enough to mitigate the companies’ overall carbon footprints. They will have to look beyond and engage in planned afforestation or agroforestry and thereby measure the carbon sequestered or the carbon footprints mitigated through agroforestry.
It helps that in the Indian context, agroforestry meets multiple objectives of sections of CSR prescribed in Schedule VII of Companies Act 2013. It is the only intervention that can help companies mitigate carbon while meeting their CSR compliances and also make a positive impact on communities at the grassroots.
A substantial amount of CSR budgets can be reserved for agroforestry interventions for the next few years and a broad plan devised keeping CO sequestration targets with datelines in place. Sustainability and CSR leads may sit together and find out how many and what species of saplings may be planted in which region to be able to achieve the target.
To begin with, identify the villages where you already have multiple ongoing programmes and communities already trust the brand. Conduct a baseline to understand agroforestry potential in the area, engage with the local farmers and make them the primary stakeholders in your interventions, and make it a beneficial proposition for the farmer, the company, the planet, and all of us.
Benefits of agroforestry
- Contributes to achieving at least 9 out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- Helps not only in climate change mitigation and adaptation, but also in increasing communities’ resilience to climate-related shocks
- Reduces poverty and hunger through higher yields and more diverse livelihoods for the marginalised
- Preserves biodiversity as trees provide a habitat for multiple species and create landscapes important for their survival and growth
- Improves soil fertility, an important aspect for increasing food security
- Empowers rural women by strengthening their control over natural resources and freeing up their time. For example, instead of gathering firewood, women engage in income-generating activities