Agroforestry: the future of farming

Marthe writes*

It is time for agricultural reform in the Netherlands. Biodiversity is declining at alarming rates, and the predicted increase of extreme weather calls for a more resilient production system.

Since the second agricultural revolution that began in 18th century England, scientific knowledge has moved farms toward monocultures (the same crop is grown on the same land). Without crop rotation, soil fertility decreases, and years of these practices have resulted in less nutritious, less tasty food.

Furthermore, monoculture is causing soil depletion and it is one of the main sources of nitrogen emissions. Too much nitrogen has a negative effect on nature and biodiversity (the richness of species in nature). It also acidifies soil, reducing concentrations of minerals such as calcium and magnesium that trees and other plants depend upon to live. Plants that prefer nutrient-poor soil, such as flowering herbs, which are important for meadow birds and insects are also disappearing due to this acidification. According to TNO, Dutch emissions of nitrogen per hectare are the highest in Europe, almost four times the average value. The Dutch agricultural sector is responsible for 45% of nitrogen emissions. Over 72% of the Dutch nature reserves are getting too much nitrogen.

Agroforestry could be the solution. A ‘food forest’ is a vital ecosystem designed by humans following the example of a natural forest with the aim of producing food. A richly varied food forest increases biodiversity, enhances soil health, and can curb GHG emissions of CO2, CH4, and N2O. Through the incorporation of trees within farms, the development of soil organic matter and nutrients is promoted. Tree cover also increases microbial activity and decreases erosion.

The Seven Layers of a Forest garden. Source: Permacultuur Nederland

It’s unclear if these small-scale projects can be scaled out to the rest of the Netherlands, but there’s no doubt that we need to reform our agricultural practices.

Bottom line: The current food production system is depleting the soil, decreasing biodiversity, making our food less nutritious, and overall an unsustainable practice (in all senses of the word). Agroforestry could be the solution to all of these problems, but it’s unclear if it could completely replace the current production system.

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

One thought on “Agroforestry: the future of farming”

  1. Hey Marthe,

    Super interesting and pressing topic. I’ve never thought of agroforestry and the way you are planning to investigate the topic seems pretty relevant. Something that I don’t really got from your post is whether you are planning to consider afforestation of reforestation. I think it is important to consider in terms of the marginality of the land and hence its efficiency. Also, something else I know is that large fruit and nut trees usually take much longer than usual annual crops (approximately 10 years in favorable conditions). I think this may be important to consider in terms of trade-offs and prospective opportunity costs.
    I am really looking forward to reading more about your topic, definitely something I’ve never thought of before.

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