Farming with trees would help UK hit net zero
23 February 2023
UK farms could boost food production and achieve net zero in the next decade if they planted trees between their crops, scientists say.
Agricultural scientists hope to show farmers how they can adopt agroforestry, a type of farming that involves planting lines of trees among crops.
Experts from the University of Reading are spearheading the UK portion of Reforest, a new Europe-wide programme backed by UK Research and Innovation under the Horizon Europe Guarantee. They say the widespread establishment of agroforestry would boost food production, encourage wildlife, and absorb more carbon from the air, storing it in trees and soils.
More than two-thirds of the UK’s land is used for farming. If half of all UK farms adopted agroforestry methods, farmers would achieve net zero by 2037 on arable farms, and by 2044 for livestock. To counteract the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming within 40 years, just over a fifth of UK grassland would need to be turned over to agroforestry, meaning around 55,000ha – an area the size of Leeds – would need to be converted each year.
Laurence Smith, a University of Reading lecturer in agricultural business management, who is leading the UK part of the project, said: “Farmers are increasingly under pressure to farm for food, wildlife and carbon, all in the same space and at the same time. This might seem difficult, but we’ve shown that planting trees on farms alongside other crops could be the answer. There is already good evidence showing how agroforestry is helping farmers to fight back against climate change.
“Yet only a handful of farmers across Britain and Europe have begun farming with trees. Our project plans to find out what’s stopping them, and provide some practical solutions to help more farmers to give agroforestry a go.”
Barriers and benefits
Currently, many farmers are put off the idea of agroforestry because of high set-up costs, a lack of knowledge about how the system works, and out-dated government policies which fail to recognise that trees can be grown at the same time as crops. This also means farmers have very little financial help from government grants or support schemes.
But if farmers can overcome these hurdles, the benefits to agroforestry are more than just capturing carbon, the scientists say. Smith has shown that the benefits of agroforestry include more efficient land-use, particularly in pasture for livestock, where the trees increase shade and water retention. This keeps the grass greener for longer and helps to improve meat and milk production, and the overall welfare of the animals.
Farmers using agroforestry tend to sell more produce locally, as they produce a greater variety of different types of food. With less need for artificial fertiliser and sprays, farmers also cut down on their use of fossil fuels.
Also working on the project at Reading will be Dr Tom Staton, who has previously shown how, despite high upfront costs, agroforestry can increase a farm’s income in the long term.
Showing the way in Suffolk
Smith’s team will be talking to the few UK farmers who are already using agroforestry, to learn from their experiences of farm with trees in the UK.
Wakelyns farm is a 23-hectare estate in Suffolk which started using agroforestry methods in 1994. Bosses at the farm planted lines of trees to integrate woodland areas with crops, with a mix of willow, walnut, apple, trees for timber, and others. The new tree-filled fields boosted crop yield, as the trees helped to keep the soil moist, protected the young crops from damaging gusts of wind, and slowed wind-born diseases from blowing in.
Wakelyns is now growing as much food as would be expected from a piece of land that is one-third larger, the scientists found.
Alongside the fruit and nut trees, Wakelyns boss David Wolfe grows wheat, lentils, squash and oats. Extra space at the site created by the adoption of agroforestry has also allowed Wolfe to diversify into visitor accomodation, with ‘glamping’ sites for visitors providing an additional source of income.
Reforest Britain and Europe
The goal of Reforest is to share best practice to make agroforestry an attractive option for more farmers and landowners across the UK and Europe. It will bring together 14 partners from 10 European countries with multidisciplinary expertise. It is funded by the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme.
Field research by the University of Reading team is due to begin this year and will continue until 2026.