Combining different crops and mixing agriculture with livestock and forest management makes it possible to better respond to climate challenges and current crises. From Horizon magazine, a review of two European projects
by Matteo Cavallito
Mixing different forms of agriculture, agroforestry and animal farming to counter geopolitical, macroeconomic and climate shocks. That’s the choice of some European operators called to find solutions to the current global crises, writes Horizon magazine, a publication of the EU Commission.
“The COVID-19 pandemic led to bare shelves in supermarkets as shipping routes were cut off. The war in Ukraine has affected the supply of essential grains,” says the magazine focused on research and innovation. “But increased climate change stands to cause even greater disruption”. Part of the solution, some researchers say, “is for farms to become more mixed through some combination of crop cultivation, livestock production and forestry, a move that would also make agriculture more sustainable.”
The AGROMIX Project
One of the initiatives is AGROMIX, a project that will end in 2024 and extends over twelve pilot and nine experimental sites spread across three climate zones: Atlantic, inland continental, and Mediterranean. The farms involved, Horizon explains, “are experimenting with combining crop and livestock production in one farm (mixed farming) and with pairing farming and forestry activities (agroforestry).” With excellent results.
“Poultry grazing in orchards is an example of a mixed-farming approach,” the magazine says. “The results reveal interesting synergies and promising effects, including improvements in soil health.”
The basic idea is still the same: combine different factors by offsetting negative effects and generating benefits. Maintaining trees and hedges in pastures, for example, contributes to animal health, especially during warmer periods, by offsetting emissions. And it is always plants that increase the carbon sequestration capacity of the soil and help prevent flooding.
Mixed farming ideally stands in contrast to agricultural specialization, the trend established with the development of the agribusiness industry. Mixing different crops or activities, FAO notes, inherently produces advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, operators are called upon to balance the different elements to produce the best overall result.
“Trees in and on the edge of a crop field generally reduce the grain yield,” says the UN organization. “But the combination of the trees (for fodder and timber) and crops is valuable, because each of the components produces useful products for the farm (people and animals included).”
Mixed farming, the FAO continues, takes on different characteristics depending on the impact of external factors – climate, market prices, technology – and internal factors, such as soil characteristics. “Farmers can decide to opt for mixed enterprises when they want to save resources by interchanging them on the farm – because these permit wider crop rotations and thus reduce dependence on chemicals, because they consider mixed systems closer to nature, or because they allow diversification for better risk management.”
Agriculture and forests, a winning combination
Another example of positive “contamination” of different elements is the MIXED project at Aarhus University, in Denmark. The initiative aims to combine mixed, agropastoral and agroforestry systems to make agriculture more efficient and resilient. Inspiring the operation is the experience of traditional agroforestry techniques used in Portugal’s Tagus Valley: in winter, fields are plowed and sown with cereals. In summer, the land is converted to pasture. The presence of oak trees creates shade and supports the water cycle.
“Danish farms in the project have taken a different approach, looking at how farmers can use coppicing to create a carbon sink“, writes Horizon. “Coppicing is a pruning technique that cuts trees to ground level, causing new shoots to grow rapidly from the base to form a bush”.
Bushes are pruned and spread on the ground, thus creating a natural mulch while improving soil quality. The ultimate goal of the project is to create a European database of mixed farming and agroforestry practices that can provide useful information and concrete examples to farmers.
The benefits of agroforestry
The benefits of agroforestry – that is, of establishing an agricultural system that combines traditional activities such as crops and livestock with the planting and management of trees – has long attracted the interest of experts, not only in the EU. A recent report by Woodland Trust, an organization promoting the restoration of Britain’s forests, for example, specifically highlighted several benefits associated with the practice.
“Bringing more trees into farmed landscapes will make them more resilient economically and environmentally,” says the research. “Trees on farms combine productivity with support for biodiversity, increasing the carbon stored in the land and helping us meet our commitments on climate and nature.”
On average, cultivated land in the UK releases nearly 2 tons of CO2 per hectare each year; land used for livestock almost four tons. In contrast, the report notes, “Over 30 years, silvoarable systems can sequester the equivalent of eight tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.” Moreover, “Establishing silvopastoral agroforestry on 30% of UK grassland would result in net zero emissions from the grassland sector by 2050, and a net sequestration rate of 21 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year by 2062.”