Britain has committed more than 500 million pounds ($560 million) to planting 30,000 hectares (about 74,000 acres) of trees per year between 2020 and 2025.
About 70% of the country’s total area is agricultural land, but currently only a little more than 3% of British land is used for some form of agroforestry, according to Paul Burgess, an agroforestry professor at England’s Cranfield University.
In its 2020 report, the government’s Committee on Climate Change recommended increasing the area of farmland that incorporates trees to 10%, saying it could cut planet-warming emissions by six metric tons per year by 2050.
Burgess noted that planting trees on agricultural land can cut more emissions than planting trees on non-agricultural land, with trees in some cases leading to reduced fertiliser use or a lower density of beef cattle, a key source of climate changing emissions.
But even proponents of agroforestry say making the practice more widespread will not be easy – not least because there is a lack of available trees to plant.
“If agroforestry was to take off at the level that we would all like to see, we don’t have the tree supply (nationally),” said Helen Chesshire, lead farming advocate for the Woodland Trust, which gives grants to farmers to plant trees.
“Currently, we have a bottleneck.”
FARMING OVER FORESTS
Farming with trees in a multi-crop system is not a new idea. People have used the technique for thousands of years, including on the British Isles, and it is still the method of choice on vast swathes of the planet.
Farmers and other agricultural experts say agroforestry boosts biodiversity, aiding vital pollinators like bees and birds, while reducing instances of pest and disease infestation for both plant crops and livestock.
For instance, spreading fruit or nut trees throughout a crop field, rather than grouping them together in an orchard, makes it harder for disease to jump from tree to tree.
The practice also slows land degradation as trees store nutrients and water in the ground and protect soil against wind erosion, as well as buffering crops against flooding.
All can help counter the effects of rising temperatures and intensifying drought, experts say.
Despite the benefits of multi-crop systems, a range of European and UK agricultural policies, starting in 1962, incentivised farmers to clear trees to grow more monocrops, said Briggs, the Cambridgeshire farmer.
That created “a chasm” between agriculture and forestry, he said, which over the past decade a coalition of farmers, ecologists and nonprofits have been lobbying the British government to close.
Since the United Kingdom left the European Union in 2020, all four of its national governments have announced the development of agroforestry standards and payment programmes to encourage more trees on farms.
“The government now seems to at least accept that trees on farms are no longer an issue, that they are part of the farming system,” said Chesshire of the Woodland Trust.