How regenerative agroforestry could solve the climate crisis

20 Dec 2019
Alexander Daniel, reNature
Tom Lovett, reNature
Intensified, monoculture farming, drives land degradation and soil erosion, threatening biodiversity and food supplies

Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce
  • Farming is responsible for almost 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Agriculture is the root cause of 80% of tropical deforestation.
  • Regenerative agroforestry, an agricultural method that mimics natural ecosystems, could help reverse these trends.

Our world is changing. The EU has just declared a climate emergency and stated that Europe must reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – in the same year, our planet’s population is expected to hit 10 billion people. Global food production needs to prepare for an uncertain future and rising populations.

Climate, soil and farming: an intimate relationship

How we produce food is having a massive impact on our planet and driving the climate crisis. Farming is responsible for almost 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Land conversion and external inputs required for industrial agriculture lead to ecological dead-zones. Mechanization and commonly used synthetic fertilizers cause various emissions, while intensive management to raise crop yields releases carbon from the soil.

Inefficiency threatens biodiversity

In many places, agriculture expands into biodiverse areas because of inefficient land-use. Researchers in Brazil found that cattle ranchers are only using Amazon farmland to 34% of its productive potential. Poor management practices, like overgrazing, mean that agriculture is the root cause of 80% of tropical deforestation.

Turning biodiversity-rich areas into intensified, monoculture farming, drives land degradation and soil erosion, threatening the world’s food supplies. According to the Director-General of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN), “the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk”.

Demands on arable land in more and less developed countries

Small to no profits for farmers

Market pressures force farmers globally to intensify agriculture and focus on short-term investment returns. Because of soil degradation, they increasingly rely on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to maintain productivity. As costs rise, earnings shrink and farmers become trapped in debt, taking out yearly loans to pay for external inputs.

In the UK, 25% of farming households live under the poverty line and in the US, half of the farms are losing money. This year, farmers have protested in the NetherlandsGermany, and Indonesia, where hundreds of people were arrested. Farmers are frustrated because conventional farming is no longer able to provide a livelihood.

Climate crisis for farming

Global farming has reached a crisis point. Intensified land use and inefficient human systems threaten food security and drive biodiversity loss and climate change. Half the world’s fertile soil is already lost and, with an estimated 60 years of topsoil left, we need a farming strategy that restores soil and secures food production.

It is possible to put global agriculture into a climate-smart future and the solution already exists. Practised around the world, it’s known as regenerative agroforestry.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.