What is Agroforestry?

Definitions of agroforestry

In its most basic, agroforestry is defined as agriculture with trees.

But it is so much more.

Agroforestry is the interaction of agriculture and trees, including the agricultural use of trees. This includes trees on farms and in agricultural landscapes, farming in forests and along forest margins and tree-crop production, including cocoa, coffee, rubber and oil palm. Interactions between trees and other components of agriculture may be important at a range of scales: in fields (where trees and crops are grown together), on farms (where trees may provide fodder for livestock, fuel, food, shelter or income from products including timber) and landscapes (where agricultural and forest land uses combine in determining the provision of ecosystem services).

At national and global scales, forestry and agriculture interact ecologically and through policies relating to land use and trade, and are important with respect to climate change and other environmental concerns. Agroforestry embraces an agro-ecological approach, putting emphasis on multi-functionality and the management of complex systems and polycultures rather than focusing exclusively on monoculture.

We use the word ‘tree’ inclusively, to refer to trees and shrubs, all woody perennials, palms and bamboo. We also use the word ‘agriculture', inclusively, to refer to a human activity, carried out primarily to produce food, fibre and fuel by the deliberate and controlled use of plants and animals.

Why is agroforestry valuable?

There is nothing better than a tree to simultaneously:

  • Sequester carbon from the atmosphere
  • Bring up water and nutrients from depth
  • Provide a framework for above- and below-ground biodiversity to flourish
  • Build up soil organic matter and thus soil carbon - Offer new farm diversification enterprises
  • Make agricultural landscapes more resilient
  • Record climate history

Agroforestry involves a wide range of trees that are protected, regenerated, planted or managed in agricultural landscapes as they interact with annual crops, livestock, wildlife and humans. Trees essentially provide two things: products and services. Tree products include fruit, nuts, oils, beverages, gums, resins, latex, flavours, leaves for food and nutrition, fodder for livestock, timber, fuel wood and biomass for energy production, and medicines that treat disease.

Besides products, trees also provide services such as hosting edible insects, serving as bee habitats for pollination, providing shelter from wind and sun, modifying micro-climates, nitrogen fixation, erosion control, refugia for biodiversity, and better regulation of water, including groundwater recharge. Trees are fundamental for land regeneration.

Cultural values and symbolic functions have been attributed to trees; in some communities particular trees have a sacred status, are used in cultural rituals and play a central role in stories and myths. Trees have also been used as land boundary markers and to confer land use rights even if not full ownership of land.

To derive the best value from agroforestry interventions, it is considered best to design and implement research for development which acknowledges that we are dealing with complex adaptive systems. This requires research to be embedded within development investments and interventions that are prepared to ‘learn as they do’, in order to speed up adaptation and lower the risks of failure. The results are better development investments and improved responsiveness on the parts of practitioners and implementers alike.