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Trails of Regeneration: Agroforestry Works With Nature, Uses Trees to Grow Food

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – In our latest “Trails of Regeneration” episode, we explore the roots of agroforestry and how industrial agriculture has pushed aside ancient farming practices that produce healthy food while also caring for the environment. 

The old saying “nature knows best” rings true when it comes to agriculture. Working with nature instead of against it is a mindset that dates back early in human history when farmers relied on ancestral knowledge and traditions to grow food. 

Our new episode, “Agroforestry Today Part 1: A Brief History of Agroforestry,” features Patrick Worms, senior science policy advisor for the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre and president of the European Agroforestry Federation.

Agroforestry is a form of agriculture that incorporates trees and shrubs with food crops. It puts nature first and is one of the most ancient forms of farming. Agroforestry considers the natural landscape and the integration of trees to create a food system with environmental, social and economic benefits. 

Worms has spent decades researching and developing agroforestry systems around the world. He is one of a handful of political and scientific agroforestry lobbyists in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe where he lends his expertise on agricultural policies.

Agroforestry: The art of reading a landscape to enhance agricultural productivity 

In a Zoom interview with Regeneration International, Worms explained how the introduction of modern technology in the agricultural sectorthink pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and farming equipment such as tractors, plows and combineshas in many ways brought thousands of years of agricultural evolution using trees to a standstill. 

The bright side is that as the limitations of industrialized agriculture become more obvious, we are rediscovering the wisdom of ancient agroforestry knowledge, said Worms. 

At the World Agroforestry Centre, Worms is working on new ways to implement agroforestry systems worldwide and in regions faced with food shortages and the impacts of climate change and desertification. 

Trees have proven to be an important resource through human history. Trees provide food and fuel, help fertilize soils and protect farmland from pests, diseases and extreme weather conditions. 

Combining trees, shrubs and grasses with food crops and livestock creates a functional ecosystem that’s efficient at producing a variety of healthy foods. In the featured video, Worms explains that natural landscapes where fruits and grasses grow together almost always have trees in them. 

Farmers learned early on the benefits of growing food alongside trees

Farmers who saved and planted seeds harvest after harvest learned early on that trees are beneficial when grown with certain food crops, said Worms. A good example of this exists in the high plateaus of Papua New Guinea, an island researchers believe is where the banana was first domesticated

Humans first settled in Papua New Guinea about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Despite the cool-to-cold climate, agriculture was in full swing in the region’s highlands by 7,000 B.C. The environment, dotted with swamps and rich in flora and fauna, helped make it one of the few areas of original plant domestication in the world. 

Early foods systems such as those in Papua New Guinea are prime examples of ancient agroforestry, said Worms, adding: 

“If you look at those landscapes, they are typical agroforestry landscapes with multi-strata gardens, annuals on the ground, vines climbing along with trees, mid-level shrubs and taller trees with animals and crops in between.”

Agroforestry is practiced throughout ancient human history

Examples of agroforestry systems span the globe throughout human history. From the domestication of the cacao tree in Central and Latin America, to the fig treewhich originated in southwest Asia and is one of the oldest fruits eaten by humansagroforestry systems have produced some of today’s most popular foods.

Early humans that practiced agroforestry developed successful farming systems not because they had scientists in white lab coats, but because they had a constant process of trial and error. The good things were adopted and passed on, and the bad things were abandoned, said Worms, adding: 

“But modernity has swept that away. Knowledge that was painstakingly gained by millennia of our ancestors has completely disappeared.”

Replacing farming practices based on thousands of years of ancestral knowledge with chemical-dependent industrial agriculture has degraded the soil, eliminated biodiversity, stripped food of essential nutrients and enslaved and indebted farmers to major agriculture corporations. 

The good news is that a return to agroforestry and the scaling up of organic and regenerative agriculture systems can reverse the damage caused by industrial agriculture. 

Environmentally focused food and farming systems can improve the social and economic livelihood of farmers, rebuild soil health, promote biodiversity and clean watersheds, produce healthy food and mitigate climate change by drawing down and storing carbon in the soil. 

As Food Tank: The Think Tank For Food wrote so eloquently in October: 

“If we are going to protect our planet and keep healthy food on our table, agroecology is the way forward.”

To learn more about agroforestry and some of today’s best practices, stay tuned for the next episode, “Agroforestry Today P 2: Today’s Good Practices,” in this two-part series.

Oliver Gardiner represents Regeneration International in Europe and Asia. Julie Wilson, communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), contributed to this article.

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