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Although the story varies greatly from one place to another, the practice of maintaining or integrating trees in the agricultural landscape has existed from ancient times around the world and has constituted the default practice in terms of land use management. It was only during the last centuries that farming and trees became dissociated as monocropping became more common, in an effort to intensify food production.
In Europe, the Spanish Dehesas, a system in which pasture (cattle, swine, sheep) is covered by scattered oaks, is said to have its origins dating back 4 500 years. In Germany, until the Middle Ages, farmers would start growing crops on small pieces of land they just cleared from trees. They would then have trees grow anew on the land, parallel to the crops grown.
In the Americas, numerous peoples during the pre-Columbian period practiced what is termed today as multi-story agriculture, whereby vertical space is maximized, as the farmers made an effort to mimic complex forest ecosystems, in order to enjoy their multiple benefits.
In Asia, in the Indian peninsula, traditional homegardens have existed for millennia, while rulers have formally encouraged certain systems at specific periods.
As for Africa, trees covered ground crops while roots were growing underground. Swidden cultivation, also known as shifting cultivation, is still used and is one of the first agricultural techniques ever developed.
There are plenty of other examples of how people would combine the ecological functions of species of trees and plants in order to provide themselves with various goods and services. This is what has come to be called agroforestry.
From centuries-old to modern agroforestry
The term agroforestry was coined in the late 1970s, reflecting a significant change in agricultural development. During this period, the rural poor gained more attention from the international development community. Moreover, the environmental and social side effects of the high input agriculture induced by the Green Revolution, which brought tremendous increase in yields of cereal crops, were starting to be felt.
In this context, many stakeholders started to look at alternatives, such as intercropping and integrated farming, involving trees and animals. The creation of the International Centre of Research for Agroforestry (ICRAF) was an indication of the international development community's recognition of agroforestry as an important land use practice deserving intensified research. With these research efforts, modern agroforestry can use science to improve already well-established local traditions.
Agroforestry is increasingly recognized as a beneficial land use practice and is thus becoming more widespread. The government of the Philippines was among the first to support agroforestry as a viable strategy for rural development. In 2014, the government of India adopted a National Agroforestry Policy. Such institutionalization in developing countries demonstrate their commitment to support wider adoption of agroforestry.
Although the creation of modern agroforestry finds its origins in the solutions to development problems, its benefits are also recognized now in developed countries, and government support has grown accordingly. Here are some examples of this.
In the United States, after a long period of sporadic interest, notably during the 1930’s Dust Bowl, the USDA Interagency Working Group on Agroforestry in 1996 took on the issue of institutionalization. Its work and subsequent follow-up reports led to the adoption of the 2011-2016 Strategic Framework, which seeks to (1) increase use of agroforestry by landowners and communities, (2) advance the understanding of, and tools for, applying agroforestry and (3) incorporate agroforestry into an all-lands approach to conservation and economic development.
In 2001, in Europe, tree-based intercropping systems were accepted for access to funding support from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union. In 2004, the European Commission launched Article 44 for support to agroforestry. In the new CAP for 2023-2027, agroforestry is listed as one of the principal agricultural practices that could be supported by eco-schemes; a new instrument in the CAP to support the transition towards sustainable food systems.
Australia and New Zealand are also recognizing the diverse benefits of agroforestry, or farm forestry. Through their respective programs, Landcare and the Sustainable Farming Fund, growing trees on farms is seen as a way to gear agricultural practices towards a more sustainable path, notably with agroforestry projects.