Can farms and forests mix?

August 24, 2009

Forests and farms don’t mix, according to conventional wisdom.

Farmers are often portrayed as the villains, slashing and burning trees to clear land for crops and wrecking forests from the Amazon to Indonesia (…not to mention Europe, where people cleared most forests thousands of years ago).

But a report today by the World Agroforestry Centre indicates that farms aren’t such enemies of trees as usually thought – it says tree canopies cover at least 10 percent of almost half the world’s farmland.  That is a gigantic area the size of China, or Canada. (For a story, click here).

Ten percent doesn’t sound much but one common definition of a “forest” by the U.N.s’ Food and Agriculture Organisation is an area where tree canopies cover at least 10 percent. It excludes farmland or urban areas (– otherwise your local supermarket car park might qualify if it’s got a few trees dotted around the tarmac).

Farmers sometimes keep trees as a backup if their main crops fail — with their deeper roots, trees producing fruit or nuts, for instance, can withstand droughts or floods better than many crops. Farmers also keep trees for uses such as a source of building materials, medicines or shade.

So trees are more common on farms than thought — and a home to a wider variety of insects or animals than a swathe of grassland, maize or wheat. They may also be a bigger store of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than expected, with a role in limiting global warming.

So have farmers got too bad a rap for deforestation?


(Pictures: top: Cows graze under a solitary maple tree on a hill near the central Bohemian town of Votice 63 km (40 miles) south of Prague, July 18, 2009. REUTERS/Petr Josek. Centre left: Pedestrians walk over an empty parking lot in Beijing’s central buisiness district August 20, 2007. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause. Bottom right: Cattle graze in a deforested jungle near Maraba, in Brazil’s central state of Para May 3, 2009. Soon thousands of cows will be chewing pasture on the freshly cleared land in Brazil’s Amazon state of Para, just a tiny part of Brazil’s 200-million-strong commercial cattle herd, the world’s biggest. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker)


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There are many benefits from agroforestry besides the opportunity for multiple harvests. Trees can protect livestock from extremes of temperature or weather. They may also help protect crops from damage from intense sun, and help to maintain humidity. Trees can also draw nutrients from deeper in the soild, and they then deposit these on the surface (for example) when their leaves fall, allowing nutrients which would have otherwise been un-obtainable by other crops to be effectively utilised.There are many models of agroforestry that have been utilised for a great deal of the history of agriculture – for example, keeping fowl within an orchard, or the tradition, now less often practiced, of turning pigs out into oak woodland in the autumn (acorns used to be a vital feed for pigs). Presumably, these methods have fallen out of favour due to mechanisation of tilling, planting and harvesting, where trees could obstruct machinery, and factory-orientated husbandry. However in regions where these processes are still performed manually the advantages can be great.However, the cultivation of multiple crops in the same field is an abomination, according to Leviticus, so not everyone may be tractable on this method!

Posted by Joel F | Report as abusive

My family and I live in Western Massachusetts. I have lived in this area since 1983. I have hiked the Appalachian Trails all over this area. We live where there is no industry and no major roads. We drive 8 miles in any direction to ammenties. The ambient background at night is normally is between 22-35dBA. I know what our environment should sound like when you listen to it and it shouldn’t sound like this! The noise you hear is a representation of those we have become familiar with and slightly elevated in volume so you can clearly pick them out. We have lived for over two years with an insidious and invasive electrical noise in our community -not due to anything in our home!- which is in violation of MA Noise Regulations. Our lifestyles and wellbeing have been greatly compromised for almost 2 years. We have been unable to enjoy a normal night of sleep for over a year and a half. Noise pollution due to electrical sources has been linked to serious health problems. We have not been able get help from our local, state or government officials, who will not enforce the law. Instead of help, we have received reverse condemnation. Why is this happening? DSL, and all forms of telecommunication, including wireless, must be grounded to your utility company’s neutral wire to operate. The outdated infrastructure of the power grid is overburdened and is often no longer compatible with modern requirements of technology. As the grid stretches the distance to rural communities, its quality is compromised to save costs. Technology is marching forward at a pace which the grid cannot handle. As a result, our communities, all of them, are being flooded with what is well known as harmonics, pure tones, audible frequencies, and stray voltage, which have all been proven by science to contribute to radiation and be carcinogenic. The utility companies have no true regulatory oversight and have been allowed to say anything and do anything to avoid accountability and spare themselves the costs of appropriate and proven mitigation options. Whether or not you can hear electrical noise clearly, these frequencies are affecting you and your environment. Gone are the days and nights of true peace and quiet. Your children will grow up to accept that the buzzing and humming electrical noises are “normal” and acceptable. They will be the first generation to suffer a lifetime of ill effects, since there are no radio frequency limits to protect them. The FCC wants to pass the noise off as people suffering from Tinnitus. We do not have tinnitus. This is wrong. We have 8 reams of emails, hundreds of hours of audio recordings, scientific research, acoustical and electrical evidence of electrical leakage and radiation in our community and communities in every State we have visited and conducted testing, and a growing network of concerned citizens. Many people across the country are experiencing the same reactions from their utility company and officials. They are dealing with illness related to EMF and Radio Frequencies. We all deserve proper regulations, limits and oversight. Our elected officials should be fighting for our safety, our children’s safety and the preservation of our wildlife. We have formed a volunteer alliance across the country. Contact us by responding to this video. Call your local and State officials and demand protection from these health hazards. Don’t allow them to fool you into submission. Demand that impact studies be done before attaching wireless to your grid. Tell them you want the proper testing conducted in your community to determine the risks you face.Please watch our videos. Fs oykk&feature=channel_pageRobert O. Becker, M.D. twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for his research.Quoted, “I have no doubt in my mind that at the present time, the greatest polluting element in the earth’s environment is the proliferation of electromagnetic fields.I consider that to be far greater on a global scale, than warming, and the increase in the chemical elements in the environment.”Dr Hillman, Foremost authority on Stray Voltage stated in an email to me, Recently we recorded a 103.2 MHz signal delivering 700 milliamps of current on the Primary neutral which is contaminating the premises and making cows sick on a dairy farm. I recommend Barry Kennedy’s book, Power Quality Primer, McGraw-Hill, 2000.2 CommentsPosted in Uncategorized | Tags: EMF, RF radiation, health hazard, cancer, diabetes, insomnia, noise pollution, high ELF, electric currents, illegal, utility and government corruption, radio frquency sickness, EMS, wifi, wireless industry, FCC, wildlife

Posted by SANDAURA | Report as abusive

Hi Alister:I enjoyed your column and think you handled a controversial topic well. I work at Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin Group) and we have an upcoming novel that I think you may enjoy:In a radical departure from environmentalist dogma, David Owen’s GREEN METROPOLIS redefines what it means to be green, and offers vital insights into how to make our way to a more sustainable future. In this eye-opening and meticulously researched polemic, Owen argues that sustainability doesn’t depend on the acquisition of fancy new “green” gadgetry or the advent of new energy-related technologies, but on lo-fi solutions already at work in dense cities around the globe. We already have a good idea of what we need to do, or at least how to get started.“Owen’s lucid, biting prose crackles with striking facts that yield paradigm-shifting insights. The result is a compelling analysis of the world’s environmental predicament that upends orthodox opinion and points the way to practical solutions”¬––Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)If you would be interested in an ARC of this upcoming title please send me an email at and I look forward to talking with you further!Best,Lydia HirtMarketing CoordinatorRiverhead Books

Posted by Lydia Hirt | Report as abusive

It would be great if every town/city planted more trees AND CARED FOR THEM! This town has let dozens of trees die the past decade, and more are still dying.I have 2 old elm, and a dozen new ones about 15-20 ft. tall in my small back yard, and a cyprus and a Pecan in the front yard!I appreciate what the Arbor Society is doing, giving away trees for people to plant. I wish they would offer trtees to towns/cities, for donations, or at cost, and a bigger campaign around the world would be set up to offer trees to farmers and others to plant.

Posted by Antoinette Edmonds | Report as abusive

I have to say, this sounds more like propaganda then anything else. A line of trees breaking up a series of 40 acre plots (think old school USA farm steads) hardly consitutes tree coverage. A couple dozen saplings growning in a fallow field doesnt cut it either.Now if we started speaking of sizable stands of woods which were allowed to mature and breaking up large modern fields I think we would be on to something.

Posted by eron | Report as abusive

Reforesting farmland is a viable means to battle urban sprawl that gobbles up small farms for subdivisions. I’m reforesting a 22-acre plot of former farmland on the edge of the Washington DC sprawl into West Virginia. Most farms around it have been developed, or sold for development. Tax incentives exist for managed timber production, so that you won’t get taxed off the land. Many areas will allow you to sell the development rights and continue to keep the land in agricultural production (timber). Forest plots are a good investment for the long term, and add to quality of both human and animal life.

Posted by Patrick Keller | Report as abusive

It has been known for some time that purposefully growing trees on a significant portion of farmland has multiple advantages…To see what I mean by “some time” see: AAAAMAAJ&lpg=PA221&ots=bKS03YMlhu&dq=gue lph%20study%20farming%20with%20trees&pg= PA222#v=onepage&q=&f=false(Annual report, Volume 12 By Ontario. Agricultural College and Experimental Farm, Guelph, 1886).Ironically, U of Guelph did a recent study on “intercropping” which is what they have termed it nowadays.

Posted by Kevin Burlington | Report as abusive

in china and almost all east asian countries are farms and forests mixed. since more than 50% of the population from asia are still living in the village, so, the environmental problem are not that heavy.

Posted by bamboo | Report as abusive

[…] specifically with respect to climate related issues and agriculture, Alister Doyle reported yesterday at the Reuters News Environment Blog that, “Forests and farms don’t mix, […]

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