The bigger picture

No. 3 in an occasional series of articles covering agroforestry-related topics in greater depth

With all the uncertainties and misconceptions in today’s post-truth, post-growth (see below), post-carbon era, it’s easy to see everything just from the point of view of one’s own locality, country or continent, and not to take into account what’s happening in the wider world. For example, is the view of the farmer in the drought-stricken plains of central Tamil Nadu in India on, say, poverty the same as the French farmer harvesting his irrigated maize? No, in all probability! The bigger picture is relevant to our own situation, in that we can broaden our own experience and understanding, and face the challenges now confronting us, by looking at other approaches from other regions and cultures, and Covid 19 is a stark reminder that the whole world is in the same boat.

Recent world history, let’s say the last 75 years, with the effects of fossil fuel use, corporatisation, globalisation, greenhouse gas emissions, agro-industry, pandemics and climate change, has shown us that the current model isn’t working, and that we need to change course. Indeed, the latest health crisis is forcing us to adapt in ways that we never even dreamed of six months ago – internet home schooling, for example, and all that that will lead to.

From my point of view as an agroforester, I think we can learn a lot from current global activity in my field, as it is demonstrating that it is possible to think in terms of local not global, of food not junk, of Nature not agri-business, of quality not quantity, of individual not corporate, of trees not fields, of ecology not economy, and of soil not desert.

“Agroforestry systems include both traditional and modern land-use systems where trees are managed together with crops and/or animal production systems in agricultural settings. They are dynamic, ecologically based, natural resource management systems that diversify and sustain production in order to increase social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all scales.”

FAO (2020) Agroforestry.

Of course I am not suggesting that agroforestry alone can solve the world’s problems, but it offers clear parallels and is a good example of how we can move forward to combat the difficulties facing us today. Let’s look at some of the alternatives mentioned above in more detail:

Local not global: Just as we have seen this year that we can do without air travel and transport to a large extent, (air cargo capacity at half 2019 levels (1), international air passenger traffic at -60% of seats offered (2)), so we have begun to appreciate that it is possible to eat well with fewer exotic foods shipped in at great expense, financially and environmentally, from all over the world. And ‘local’, certainly here in France, has become a buzz-word in the media, especially in relation to better food.

In terms of food value, industrially-produced tropical fruits shipped to temperate locations, for example, are usually irradiated, which can have unpredictable and often substantial effects on vitamin content (3), they often have a higher glycemic index than temperate fruits (4), and we have all experienced unripe and tasteless tropical fruit! There is no comparison between an imported pineapple in Europe and one fresh off the tree in Sri Lanka, where the central core is arguably the best part. Maybe we need to take a new look at local value/supply chains and nutritional values, a principle that operates anywhere that food can be grown, from a Ghanaian tropical forest garden to an allotment in the Severn Valley in mid-Wales.

Agroforestry initiatives the world over, temperate, boreal and tropical, are addressing the down-sizing and local supply challenges we are facing, whether it’s agroforestry in Sweden (5), including a small but significant forest-garden movement, the rainforest agroforestry polycultures of Costa Rica (6), or the highly organised agroforestry system in the United States (7). And India has a national agroforestry policy, state funded and with incentives for universities to reform their syllabuses to include agroforestry.

And the principle doesn’t apply just to food of course – marketing dogma has for a long time dictated that we ‘need’ the latest, most fashionable and cheapest products possible, and that has meant manufacturing them in the cheapest place possible, but times are changing. Local production of a wide range of goods close to a source of raw materials has multiple advantages in terms of reliability, quality, availability and sustainability over those imported from factories on the other side of the world, and need not necessarily just be for local markets. One well-known example of this and the triumph of local production over world-grabbing business is the ubiquitous Laguiole knife brand from southern France, in the village of the same name. In 2017, after a 19-year battle, they won back the right to exclusive use of their name from a Paris entrepreneur, who had somehow usurped the brand and the famous bee logo to sell a much wider range of cheaper kitchen products, many of them manufactured in China (8).

Food not junk: In a previous article on this site (Article No. 2, Sustainability: what does it mean exactly?, June 15th, 2020), I mentioned that it is easy to be persuaded that, for example, ‘fresh’ organic food in a supermarket is fine, when in reality it is not if you stop to think. It is very often industrially produced, far from its point of sale, has been stored and shipped under less than ideal conditions and over an indeterminate amount of time, and disrespectfully handled by supermarket staff! Have you ever seen sad, yellowing broccoli on the vegetable counter, sweating under a plastic film? And yet we seem happy to accept that somehow this is OK.

Malnutrition is generally taken to mean under-nutrition, but it now clearly also indicates over-nutrition, eating too much ultra-processed food and not getting enough exercise. In ‘developed’ countries, notably the United States, and increasingly Europe, obesity rates are high, and growing. Today, there are more deaths worldwide related to obesity and overweight than among those who are underweight, according to the World Health Organisation (9), and that’s without taking Covid-19, which has highlighted immunity dangers due to poor diet, into account (10).

The world’s leading agroforestry organisations (among others, the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR, Indonesia), the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF, Kenya), the Association Française d’AgroForesterie (AFAF, France) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO, Italy)) work hard to increase sensitivity to the need for more sustainable use of land and the production of nutritious food for all. Unfortunately, their message is not getting through to the general public in the wealthy countries because of a perceived lack of need. But in view of the obesity problems mentioned above, we might wonder who it is that needs their advice the most!

Trees not fields: Agroforestry is about trees with crops and/or livestock (Article No.1, Agroforestry and the Forest Garden, May 31, 2020); industrial agriculture is about fields, productivity and profit. The argument of “Yes, but we need to feed the world” is fast evaporating because of the problems outlined below, and because both productivity and profit, not just in agriculture but across all economic sectors, have been in decline for a long time, such that we are now in ‘post-growth’.

Real long-term interest rates (Source: OECD, cited in Bergeaud et al (11)), a graphic decline in the finance sector which leads to a similar fall in productivity growth.

I include the above illustration not because I know about economics (I don’t), but because it illustrates the point very well, symbolic of a spectacular decline across the board, and modern agriculture is no exception, indeed it is guilty of much more than just profiteering. The environmental and social effects of this sector’s disregard for the health of the planet and its people are well-documented (12, 13). As Roger Leakey, who has spent a lifetime in agroforestry research and writing, puts it in Living with the Trees of Life (14, p.18): “agriculture needs to shift from environmental culprit to environmental, social and economic saviour”.

Agroforestry is one way in which this can be achieved. The fact that around 70% of the world’s food production is in the hands of just 1% of landowners, and that about 84% of farms across the globe are of less than 2ha (15), should be seen as a sign of hope, not despair, despite the fact that it is a scandal. The 1% is a relatively small number of people to convince that they need to change (indeed they will sooner or later be obliged to change, see below), and the 84% is a huge resource for the future of sustainable food production. It is a sea change in outlook that is needed now.

Leakey (14, p.171) cites an African proverb: ‘If many little people, in many little places, do many little things, they will change the face of the world’.

The ways in which trees can benefit the land are many and varied – leguminous plants of all kinds from tall trees such as Robinia pseudoacacia to the garden pea, absorb inert nitrogen from the air and with the help of bacterial colonies on their roots, convert this into a usable form, one of the most effective and ecologically efficient ways of enriching the soil. Their fallen leaves also contribute nitrogen to the humus layer on the soil’s surface. Hedgerows on contour lines of slopes reduce water run-off and soil erosion (they too can be nitrogen-fixing), trees actually produce water through transpiration and reduce desertification, tree roots penetrate deeper into the soil, increase aeration, and bring up minerals and trace elements for the benefit of other plants nearby, and perhaps most importantly, trees promote a symbiosis between different species of plants both above and below ground, they increase fungal, bird and insect life in the vicinity and thus biodiversity, and provide leaf litter to increase the humus content of the soil. The effect of trees on the wider landscape mosaic (i.e. the diversity and multifunctionality of the land) is also huge.

And through the various forms of agroforestry (see Article No. 1, cited at the beginning of this section), a wide variety of crops and livestock can be maintained sustainably with the help of trees, that is to say, environmentally and socially, as well as economically.

Soil not desert: While not the sole cause, food production is a major driver of desertification today. With the agro-industrial model, to increase productivity, you need to continually use more fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and machinery, which ironically leads to depletion of soil nutrients and structure, soil compaction, water run-off and pollution, erosion, and eventually to desertification. (Sounds familiar – remember John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath?). It is estimated that around 30% of the world’s productive farmland has been lost in this way, solely over the last four decades, and that this is continuing at an exponential rate, such that there will probably be only around 60 harvests remaining for the industrial system if nothing changes (16).

Soil is Nature’s capital, but it’s less than a metre deep all over the land surface of the globe, and the productive part is only about 20-30cm deep. It is also the major carbon sink – there is more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined, including trees (17). So if we destroy it, what happens then?

An extreme case of soil leaching, compaction and salinisation, due to intensive agricultural practices

Fortunately, there is a way out (Nature always provides that) and we need to take a lesson from history! For millennia, people who grew and collected their food in and around the forests understood that Nature had provided us with something we had to look after, the soil. Without transportation, they needed to grow everything close at hand, and they learned that virtually every type of plant had a use – food, fibre, timber, fodder, medicine, fertiliser, shade, etc. – what today we call forest gardening. They understood that tilling the soil wasn’t desirable or necessary, and they learned that Nature had also provided the means for self-fertility, through the natural ecological cycle of producers (plants), consumers (animals and insects) and decomposers (animals, bacteria, fungi). The industrialists seem to have forgotten about all that.

I’m not suggesting we see this as a cure for everything, or that we go back in time, even if it were possible, but doesn’t it sound as if it could be useful if we adapted it more widely for today’s pressing need? It’s really just a question of scale and all pulling together, and it’s already under way anyway. An over-simplification? Maybe, but surely not beyond the bounds of possibility? Here’s hoping.


1. Seabury Consulting (September, 2020). Covid-19: Impact on air cargo capacity.

2. ICAO (2020). Effects of novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) on civil aviation: Economic impact analysis.

3. Dionisio, A.P. et al (2009). Ionizing radiation effects on food vitamins – A Review. Brazilian Archives of Biology and Technology, Braz. Arch. Biol. Technol. 52(5):1267-1278.

4. Alperet, D.J. et al (2017). Influence of temperate, subtropical and tropical fruit consumption on Type-2 diabetes in an Asian population. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Am J Clin Nutr. 2017 Mar;105(3):736-745. https://doi.10.3945/ajcn.116.147090.

5. European Agroforestry Federation (2020). A brief description of agroforestry in Sweden.

6. World Economic Forum (2019). This farmer is saving the jungle by growing food in it.

7. United States Department of Agriculture (2020). Agroforestry.

8. The Connexion (2017). Village wins back right to use name on famous knives.

9. World Health Organisation (WHO) (2020). Obesity and overweight.

10. Science (September, 2020). Why Covid-19 is more deadly in people with obesity – even if they’re young.

11. Bergeaud, A., Cette, G. & Lecat, R. (2018). Long-term growth and productivity trends: Secular stagnation or temporary slowdown? Revue de l’OFCE, 157(3), 37-54.

12. Health Care Without Harm (2018). Community health risks of industrial agriculture.

13. CAB Reviews (2011). Effects of industrial agriculture on climate change and the mitigation potential of small-scale agro-ecological farms.

14. Leakey, R.R.B. (2012). Living with the trees of life. CABI, Wallingford, UK.

15. FAO (2019). Farms, family farms, farmland distribution and farm labour: What do we know today?

16. United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) (2014). The Land in numbers: Livelihoods at a tipping point.

17. Yale Environment 360 (2014). Soil as carbon storehouse: New weapon in climate fight?

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