Tony Simons: Agroforestry is a ‘win-win’ for developing nations

Walnut trees shelter maize crops in an agroforestry project in France. [AGROFORWARDproject/Flickr]

Agroforestry is a “back to the future” concept, advocating a return to the origins of farming —trees and fields— rather than the modern concept of huge monocultures, says Tony Simons.

Tony Simons is the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, a Nairobi-based body that works in 34 countries across the developing world to argue for a move away from ‘hi-tech’ farming towards a mix of trees and agriculture, to aid productivity, livelihoods, the environment and the climate.

Simons spoke to’s Matthew Tempest.

“Agroforestry” is what, exactly?

A combination of agriculture and trees. We have 4.1 billion hectares of forest in the world, and 1.5 million hecatres of agricultural land. Agroforestry is trying to combine the two.

My understanding is it’s a sort of ‘Back to the Future’ idea. Instead of mechanisation, GM seeds and chemical fertilisers,  you want  to go back to how we used to farm, which is trees providing shade, nutrients, rainwater drainage…

Trees give you two things: trees are a ‘product’ and a ‘service’. Typical products would be firewood, timber, fruit, medicine, leaves for soil fertility, beverages, commodities, etc.


Because trees live more than one year, they’re not annual, they are the best plants at developing complicated compounds because they stay in the place 20, 30, 50, 100 years – they can’t move about. So they develop very complex chemicals to stop insects and disease and environmental stress, and those chemicals have the medicinal qualities. Two-thirds of all medicinal plants are trees.

So that’s trees as ‘product’, trees as ‘service’?

Stopping erosion, bringing up water from depth, providing a framework for biodiversity, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere – nothing is better than a tree at doing that.

But there’s an old saying  you must know – ‘the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.’ How do you persuade a farmer in a developing country to plant trees? How does he get from now to twenty years time?

The first time the farmer gets a benefit from the tree is a key question. There are some very fast-growing trees, and you can get a benefit in six months. You can have a fruit crop in six months, you can have dairy fodder for your animals that you can’t afford dairy meal for. You’ve got a tiny piece of land that animals are tethered in the field, and you can grow really nutritious fodder for them, things that will help produce protein, and thus milk and meat. That can be very short-term.

If you’re going for a long rotation, for example, a timber tree that will take 15-20 years to mature, obviously the farmer has to see the benefits of that. Some incentive scheme, perhaps even subsidising the establishment of that tree with a carbon offset. They shouldn’t plant it just for the carbon market…

Why not?

Carbon is the most variable commodity we have. At the low end, it’s $50 a tonne as firewood. At the high end, it’s $100bn a tonne as diamonds.

And the new market is $2 a tonne for atmospheric carbon. And if you take a cubic metre of wood, it’s $50 a tonne as firewood, it’s $250 a cubic metre for softwood and it’s $450 a cubic metre as hardwood. It’s up to $3,500 a cubic metre if it’s certified European beech or mahogany. So why would you say ‘I’ll take $2 to not cut that tree down’? The ratio between the carbon value is like oil. Would you take a barrel of oil,  and agree to stick it in a warehouse for 80 cents and not use it?

The picture you’re painting seems very pastoralist, very romantic, but it seems to go against current development thinking and EU focus, which is more about big farms and reliance on tech and synthetic products. Are you pushing back against that?

Well, when a lot of those decisions were taken for large-scale industrial agriculture. We didn’t have the knowledge we have today. It was very complicated, messy and difficult to deal with – so if you’re looking to promote or regulate an industry, you want simple things and those things seemed simple and became the paradigm for agriculture and forestry: ‘Let’s keep them separate, and have this big initiative’.

As we have more knowledge and understand ecology, and understand the need to build in the negative costs, if you have a beautiful mangrove forest, in the sea, if you cut it down and shrimp farm, if you only record the positive, it’s income from shrimps, and not the negative aspect when the tsunami comes along and wipes out 30,000 people because there’s no protection. That cost is hidden.

I understand the logic of what you’re saying, but is it a tough sell trying to get people to turn 180 degrees from what they currently think about agriculture, to go back to this system?

Small-scale farmers are incredibly inquisitive. They will test almost anything. They won’t adopt, because they’ve been pushed sometimes where there was a big scheme, a big promise, but they will test a lot of things.

We did some experiments a while ago. How many new tree species would farmers accept? Let’s remember that there’s 35 tree species in the UK, only 250 in Europe, and we brought in 80 new tree species to these farms in Kenya. Some farmers took up all 80.

That doesn’t mean that they’re going to adopt, so they will test, on 2%, 3%, 5% of their land. Because if you test tomatoes or carrots or maize, you can change next year, to spinach or kale. If you adopt tree-growing, you can’t switch, it’s a long-term decision. So what are the incentives, the triggers, what are the interim payments they could get?

To boil that down to what Brussels could do, does the World Agroforestry Centre have a wishlist of say three things the EU could do?

I think in terms of the mainstream commodities, oil palm, timber, cocoa, coffee, rubber, the perennial commodities – it would really good if we had some agreed performance measures of what success is.

Because there’s a lot of difficult, and emotional, things around it, eg how much of the world do we want in oilpalm? Forestry’s great, it’s renewable, you can grow it, cut it down, and use it – how much do we want in terms of bio-energy, fibre, trees?

Sending those signals that these are progressive, supportive, regulations, these are open incentives, rather than a barrier.

Because if a coffee-growing nation in Africa wants to sell processed coffee, there’s I think a 600% tariff to get into the European market – because all the roasting is done in Amsterdam and Brussels, and Geneva and London.

Further Reading

Agroforestry is crucial to the food production challenge

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just published the world’s most comprehensive study in seven years of the impact climate change has (and will have) on the world’s natural environment. Diversified farming, including agroforestry, may help mitigate the effects and food production, writes Patrick Worms.