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Soil Association launch policy recommendations on Agroforestry

Agroforestry Policy Briefing

This is a time of bold visions for the future of food and farming; increased productivity, improved soil health and resilient farming are hitting headlines. Despite such vision, there has been little mention of the practical approaches required to achieve them.

Our recent policy briefing, in partnership with the Woodland Trust puts one such method centre stage; agroforestry.

agroforestry with sheepagroforestry with sheep

Combining trees with agriculture is not a new practice, but it is woefully overlooked in the UK farming sector. Traditionally, trees are ‘done’ by foresters, food is produced by farmers and that’s that. Agroforestry blows this open and demands a systems-led approach to land use; one that can be both innovative and familiar.

Integrated environmental land management is not delivered in silos, instead it demands a mixture of uses. Agroforestry can deliver productive landscapes that diversify farm businesses, soils that are healthy and don’t get washed downstream and space for wildlife alongside human activity. The historic separation of forestry and farming has led to a void between both sectors in knowledge, funding and advisory services. Many farmers simply don’t have the practical knowledge to get started with trees, let alone the funding or business-planning support to prepare for long-term investments.

To reach this bold future for farming we need a strategy that explicitly acknowledges the benefits of integrated land use and financially supports farmers to get trees in the ground today.

More productive

Growing multiple crops from the same site can increase productivity, as much as 40%, and support crops to be more resilient to pests and diseases. Stephen Briggs is nine years into an agroforestry system that has put lines of apple trees through an arable field. His income from the fruit yield is now equal to that of his cereals. As Stephen puts it, ‘farming in 3D’ allows you to use the vertical space, capture more light and boost productivity.

stephen briggs agroforestry

Healthy soil

Soil is currently high on the agenda. Improving soil health is being supported across the political spectrum, and the farming sector is responding to their lived experience of soil erosion, having watched soils literally flowing or blowing away. Many of the benefits of agroforestry are down to protecting and improving the health of soil, and combining trees with agriculture can increase organic matter in soil, improve nutrient cycling and enhance the potential of soils to store and slow the flow of water.

healthy soil agroforestry

Resilient to climate change

It’s been estimated that one-third of global GHG emissions could be linked to the farming and food industries, and agriculture is flat-lining on emissions targets.  Yet agriculture offers one of the best solutions to climate change: the ability to capture carbon in soils and trees. According to the Committee on Climate Change if 0.6% of existing farmland in the UK were converted to agroforestry it would make a significant contribution meeting the governments legal commitment to reducing emissions in line with the fifth carbon budget.

agroforestry and climate change

The Soil Association and Woodland Trust are launching our policy recommendations for Agroforestry in England in parliament this week. We are asking government to:

  1. Provide a clear definition of agroforestry; give clarity to all land managers and the public, planting agroforestry clearly in the minds of policy makers across departments.

  2. Deliver public goods; put on-farm tree planting at the centre of any new Environmental Land Management scheme and recognise the public goods trees on-farms can offer.

  3. Trial it now; establish and fund major agroforestry trials during the EU withdrawal transition period, supporting farmer/forester-led research and knowledge exchange.

  4. Train advisors; develop fund and train a new generation of farm/forestry advisors who can break the divide between farming and forestry.

  5. Integrate policy-making; launch an over-arching agroforestry strategy to underpin a cross-departmental policy agenda.

  6. Address tenancy; incentivise long-term tenancy agreements to make it worthwhile for landlords and tenants to invest in establishing agroforestry and improving soil health.

  7. Include trees in the Agriculture Bill; recognise the vital role of trees in sustainable land management and recognise agroforestry explicitly in the forthcoming Agriculture Bill.

We expect to see the Agriculture Bill put to parliament this summer and if the UK government is serious about resilient, productive future farming that protects our natural resources then it should support agroforestry. Along with our partners from the food, farming, forestry and land use sector, we will continue to champion agroforestry as a key part of future food, land-use and environmental policies.