Young Senegalese farmers look out over a parched field. Photo by Trees for the Future
The science is in: Life as we know it is at risk of extinction — specifically, one million plant and animal species are at risk. A UN-backed report released last week found that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”
As with most studies warning of the impending decline of our environment, the report left me feeling overwhelmed and anxious about where we go from here. But you know what stood out as different to me?
The report by IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services explicitly acknowledges the role “land use” is playing in the problem and made clear the need to change our agriculture systems immediately. The report listed “changes in land and sea use” as the leading driver of “change in nature with the largest relative global impacts so far.”
The Cost of Feeding Billions
We’ve got a lot of people to feed on this planet and most agriculture stakeholders have defended the way we treat land (and water) as a requirement for feeding the growing population. But the IPBES report (authored by 145 experts from 50 countries) found that “land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface.”
What does that mean? It means the way we are treating our land and soil is literally destroying it, making it unusable for farming… There are billions of people on this planet and we all need to eat. Our current practices have failed to eradicate hunger - 11% of the global population is undernourished (the highest rates are in Africa). If we keep feeding ourselves this way we’ll all go hungry, local and global economies will crumble, and we’ll take out countless species in the process. The planet will continue to warm, sea levels will continue to rise, and we’ll hit that point of no return Greta keeps warning us about.
It’s also worth noting that much of the harm being done to our ecosystems and environment is disproportionately felt by the Global South (IPBES, 2019)?
We’re using more than a third of Earth’s land for crop or livestock production (IPBES, 2019). And if we know that those crop and livestock production techniques are destroying our land — the soil and its nutrients, micro-organisms, weeds and shrubbery, the insects and pollinators — then isn’t it time we adopted a new way of farming?
If not for the one million species facing extinction, then for the billions of people around the world that will suffer and the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ll lose when our biodiversity hits the breaking point.
A Forest Garden is made up of thousands of trees and intercropped fruits and vegetables. Photo by Trees for the Future
Rethinking Land Use and Agriculture
As anxious as I am about our planet’s future, I’m also optimistic because there is an alternative to our current farming strategy - one that effectively protects, encourages, and rebuilds biodiversity while also feeding communities and building economies - Agroforestry.
Agroforestry combines agriculture and trees to produce food and resources, while maintaining soil and ecosystem health.
Instead of clearing our trees to make room for row upon row of GMO winter wheat, soybean, or corn dependant on irrigation systems and chemicals, agroforestry teaches us to use trees for all they contribute to the land: nutrient fixing leaf litter, moisture conserving shade, and root systems that stabilize soil and recharge groundwater.
50% of our agricultural expansion has occurred at the expense of forests (IPBES, 2019), that’s not just destructive, it’s unnecessary. Forest Gardening is a centuries old form of agroforestry (one of the oldest is in Morocco) and truly agroforestry at its finest. A farmer can keep existing trees and add thousands more to their land to create a thriving micro-environment capable of producing more food than monocropping while avoiding biodiversity casualties.
Agroforestry establishes reliable crop yields and livelihoods for generations. Photo by Trees for the Future
Bringing Biodiversity Back
There is a reason we equate trees with a healthy environment - they remove carbon from the air and serve as building blocks for entire ecosystems. So why wouldn’t we incorporate them into our food system? International Development NGO Trees for the Future is working with thousands of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to do just that, and it’s working!
In just a few years, insects return to the land, soil nutrients increase, and crop yields improve dramatically. Farmers who were working degraded soil with very little return are now able to feed their families and contribute to local economies.
There are farmers around the world that use Forest Gardens and agroforestry to produce food for themselves and to sell at market. Look for producers that work with the trees and biodiversity rather than destroying them and make a dedicated effort to support those producers and their agroforestry methods. Consider getting into agroforestry yourself, check out Trees for the Future’s Forest Garden Training Center and find all the free resources you need to plant your own Forest Garden, plus find and track other Forest Gardens being planted around the globe.
If you’re like me and feeling overwhelmed by this recent report and the many others like it, take solace in the fact that the experts have pinpointed the main causes and that we have the solutions to turn things around. It’ll take a lot of trees though, so let’s get planting!
Lindsay Cobb is the Marketing and Communications Manager at nonprofit Trees for the Future, where she is part of a small team working to help thousands of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa plant themselves out of hunger and poverty through agroforestry. During her time as a news reporter in Kansas, she met American farmers and learned firsthand the challenges they face. Connect with Lindsay on Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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