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Faced with a health crisis, a plea for trees and agroforestry (commentary)

Cacao agroforestry

  • While we do not yet know where COVID-19 came from, the number of epidemics is increasing in recent years, and biodiversity is part of the problem.
  • Reintroducing trees into one of humanity’s largest land uses — agriculture — can restore lost biodiversity, protect existing biodiversity, and increase the resilience of agriculture to climate change.
  • “Agroforestry” as it’s known can also revitalize land and increase its capacity to store water, regenerate the soil and enrich it with organic matter, as does the forest, its benchmark.
  • This letter is a commentary, and originally appeared in Le Monde, in French. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Epidemiologists know that wildlife disappearance facilitates epidemics that affect humanity. This is, for example, what French scientist Serge Morand, states, “The number of epidemics is increasing due to the loss of biodiversity.” Most infectious diseases originate in wild animals and are transmitted to humans through domestic animals. In the case of COVID-19, we do not yet know the intermediate host but Morand thinks that there is a 95% chance that the origin of the epidemic is in bats.

Global deforestation and the industrialization of agriculture are leading to land degradation and a collapse of biodiversity. We know that almost 80% of insects, these fabulous pollinators and transformers of organic matter, have disappeared, with the birds in their wake. At the same time, climate change is increasing due to the decrease in the carbon storage potential by forests and the high greenhouse gas emissions from industrial agriculture. Environmental change and industrial agriculture are also the cause of diseases that affect plants. Faced with these challenges, our ongoing work on the promotion of trees and forests in agricultural areas shows that there are quickly effective solutions to protect natural forests and their biodiversity.

Reintroducing trees into agricultural land restores lost biodiversity, protects existing biodiversity and increases the resilience of agriculture to climate change. Trees make it possible to relocate nature everywhere.

Growing crops between rows of trees in France. Image via AgForward.

We can start by keeping hedges or wooded edges along plots, paths and rivers, and replant them where they were uprooted. We can help the natural regeneration of the most useful trees everywhere. We can insert tree alignments in cultivated plots. We can establish or protect multistrata “edible” agroforests in rural landscapes. We can protect all the “domesticated” natural forests of the world, which provide food for millions of people.

Shade tolerant crops such as coffee, cocoa or yams can be grown under the shade of trees. Tree fodder can be used to feed livestock and breeding can also take place in the shade of trees. All of these now well-known options constitute what is called “agroforestry,” or the art of combining trees and agriculture.

Agroforestry can revitalize land and increase its capacity to store water, regenerate the soil and enrich it with organic matter, as does the forest, its benchmark. Distributed in a harmonious way in the rural landscapes, agroforestry trees can deliver a multitude of services: Habitat for wild fauna and flora, CO2 capture and carbon storage, shelter from wind or heat waves, pollution absorber, moderating the effects of drought, extreme heat or cold, helping to control some plant diseases.

Trees can even bring back the rain and replenish springs. In “treed landscapes,” trees create heterogeneity. They contribute to the balanced functioning of the agro-ecosystems to which they belong. Remarkable trees of our countryside also serve to visualize the limits of plots, to mark the property and they often have a history or evoke a legend. Agroforestry trees are also the source of a host of useful commodities: fruits, flowers, leaves, fodder, bark, roots, drugs, perfumes, tannins, resins, latex, gums, and of course, all wood related uses.

At the start of the 21st century, agroforestry is on the rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it one of the promising options for responding to the climate crisis. However, beyond the climate crisis, agroforestry is also able to respond to perhaps an even more serious crisis: the collapse of biodiversity. By restoring wildlife habitats, it guarantees the balance of ecosystems – which brings us back to the health issue. Epidemics reveal imbalances that trees and wooded landscapes help to mitigate and regulate.

See Mongabay’s ongoing series about agroforestry here

A farmer shows off cabbage growing among other crops in an agroforestry system in southern Kenya. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Why this plea for trees? Because they will help us invent tomorrow’s agriculture. A diversified agriculture that protects the soil and other natural resources. Agriculture that no longer contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture which, if it does not play all the roles of the forest, will be able to replace it effectively and prevent the world economy, that of health crises, from continuing to deforest the planet. Agroforestry is ready to contribute to this reinvented agriculture.

We cannot overemphasize the fundamental links that exist between the ecosystems in which we live and what we are, between ecosystem problems and our own problems: the current health crisis is a good example. By replanting trees, systematically destroyed in our agricultural landscapes, by recreating agroforests to mitigate the alarming disappearance of natural wild forests, we are restoring part of what we have destroyed. It is good for the climate and biodiversity, but it is good for ourselves too, for we are part of these ecosystems.

Beyond environmental benefits, cultivating trees will allow us, by opting for diversity and quality rather than quantity, and by giving up the short term to restore long term values, to (re) find a true solidarity, between us, between generations, and with the living.

Emmanuel Torquebiau, Researcher in agroforestry, CIRAD, Montpellier, France
Ernst Zürcher, Emeritus Professor in Wood Sciences, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland
Alain Canet, Agronomist and Agroforester, Tree and Landscape 32
Geneviève Michon, Ethnobotany researcher, IRD
Christian Dupraz, Agroforestry researcher, INRAE, Montpellier
Francis Hallé, Professor of Botany
Hevé Covès, Specialist in fungal functions, Tree and Landscape 32
Konrad Schreiber, Agronomist, The Happy Cow
Marceau Bourdarias, Living Architect, La Belle Vigne
François Mulet, Agronomist

This letter originally appeared in Le Monde in French in March, 2020.

Banner image: Banner image of shade-grown coffee in Nicaragua courtesy of World Agroforestry.

In Sri Lanka, diverse agroforestry plots often surround dense plantings of tea. Photo by Chandni Navalkha for Mongabay