The German federal parliament (Bundestag) is to decide whether agroforestry will be recognised as a form of land use in the future, which would make the practice eligible for funding in the national strategic plan under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). EURACTIV Germany reports.
In agroforestry, forests can be combined with arable crops and land used for livestock. This means that both trees and crops can grow on the same piece of land and/or livestock pasture can be created there.
To date, this form of land use has not been recognised in the main subsidies programme. As a result, farmers can practice agroforestry voluntarily but they do not receive any CAP subsidies for it.
Consequently, it has not been lucrative for farmers and foresters to rely on this combination form of land use.
However, the CAP reform currently under discussion will allow member states a certain degree of flexibility to make full direct payments on fields containing agroforestry.
According to the proposal, member states will have the leeway to ensure agricultural area under agroforestry is fully eligible when justified based on the local specificities (e.g. density/species/size of the trees and pedo-climatic conditions).
On Wednesday (13 January), a debate and a vote on a number of motions could make the formal recognition of agroforestry a reality in the German legal system, making it eligible for EU funding in the new reformed CAP framework.
‘Incidental’ climate protection
“There would be advantages to planting trees and other woods on agricultural land as well,” said Christian Böhm, the chair of Soil Conservation and Recultivation at Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus-Senftenberg (BTU).
“A great deal of CO2 can be stored in the above-ground and underground wood biomass.”
Accordingly, agricultural land could more than ever also function as carbon sinks, and farms would have the opportunity to compensate for their emissions independently.
A study by Böhm shows this potential. If half of Germany’s arable land is used for agroforestry and, in turn, 10% of this area is used for the cultivation of agroforestry woody plants, the binding potential of the wood mass achieves a one-time emission binding of ten million tonnes of CO2 including its equivalents.
This corresponds to around 14% of annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (as of 2014).
However, the Böhm emphasised to EURACTIV Germany that the climate protection effects of agroforestry are almost “incidental,” because it offers numerous other advantages.
In addition to increased biodiversity and better soil and water protection, planting trees could also pay off economically. “Agroforestry systems can make a very significant contribution to climate adaptation for sustainable agriculture. They slow down the wind on arable land and compensate for temperature fluctuations,” he said.
This leads to less evaporation, for example. The water saved would then be available to the plants again for growth and higher yields.
CAP subsidies for agroforestry
In Wednesday’s Bundestag debate and subsequent vote on a number of motions from various parliamentary groups, the main issue is the formal recognition of agroforestry.
The motions from the conservative CDU/CSU and social democrat SPD groups, as well as those of the Greens and the leftist Die Linke, call on the government to ensure legal certainty for farmers who want to practice agroforestry through this recognition.
Farmers still have to fear that they will not be allowed to use or remove woody plants grown for agroforestry, which is currently still prohibited by law. In addition, farmers must exclude agroforestry areas when applying for CAP funding – even though the German government’s Climate Protection Programme 2030 talks about expanding support for agroforestry systems.
The agriculture ministry also cites agroforestry as a way to protect agricultural soils, increase humus buildup, and enhance climate protection and biodiversity.
Clarifying the discrepancy between the government’s plans and the existing legal framework could ensure in the long term that agroforestry systems are eligible for direct payments under the first pillar of the CAP.
This step would also be in the interest of the EU, as both the Farm-to-Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy mention agroforestry systems as options.
Government and opposition pull together
Against this background, it is remarkable, though hardly surprising, that government parties and the opposition are of a similar opinion. Agroforestry systems are expected to have a positive impact on the climate, crop yields and the financial situation of farmers in the future.
Böhm warned, however, that a system must be created that actually supports farmers. It is no use, he says, if agroforestry systems are eligible for support on paper, but the framework conditions are so unfavourable that in practice no farm implements such measures.
Yet the demand for agroforestry systems has increased significantly as a result of the past three dry years: “Many farms have livelihood problems and are now considering what they can do to better bridge future drought years. Agroforestry is a tool to build a more stable land use system,” said Böhm.
After Wednesday’s vote in the Bundestag, the issue is not yet settled. This is because of the exact design of the future legal framework for agroforestry systems in Germany, but it also the result of the upcoming trilogue negotiations on the CAP in Brussels.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna]