the unsung matchmaker for agricultural biodiversity

In 1998, Bruce Cockburn asked a burning question: If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear? His chart-topping song attempted to provoke governments to pump the brakes on pillaging the land of a slow-growing resource by highlighting the flood zone risks, loss of habitat for animals and insects, and how trees were, and are, the climate control centre for the world.

Agroforestry, a centuries-old practice of integrating wooded areas, shelterbelts, orchard intercropping, and livestock foraging within agriculture is seeing a resurgence worldwide due to its many ecosystem service benefits including food production, nutrient dispersal, cycling and seed dispersals, carbon sequestration, climate, disease and pest regulation, purification of water and air and biological regulation of the planet.

Explore the unseen world of the shelterbelt

Living the Wild Life

The struggle to balance agriculture and wildlife is sometimes complicated, however, research shows agroforestry offers a good compromise. Areas such as forests, shelterbelts, and orchards provide forage, refuge and habitat for domestic and wildlife. Trees, scrub brush and wildflowers also present wildlife with a safe travel corridor and, in turn, the presence of some of these animals assists the farmers. Many mammals and birds assist with seed dispersal, while birds and bats play a part in ‘pest’ insect control. Smaller species such as moles provide aeration to soil and a plethora of insects assist with pollination or have predatory instincts when it comes to aphids etc.  Economically and socially these areas create agritourism opportunities for birdwatchers, photographers, hunters and anglers.


 The argument is often made that conventional agriculture sequesters carbon, and it does in short, fast bursts. Trees, on the other hand, provide a stable, long-term carbon sequestration option, which builds upon itself year-over-year. Saskatchewan lost 2491. 2 kilometres of shelterbelts from 2008 to 2016, stretching more than twice the length of the province end-to-end, and along with it, 190,700,00 kilograms (190.7Gg) of sequestered carbon capacity.  

Third Dimension

Stephen Briggs, a Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom organic farmer, spent a year delving into global applications of agroforestry and how agriculture can cash in on “third dimension farming” as a Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust fellow in 2011.  Briggs suggested production could be increased if producers began farming the two metres above and one metre below ground by utilizing the tree's ability to exploit air, sun, water and soil nutrients to the benefit of crops.

Weather Machine

Agroforestry modifies local microclimatic conditions including temperature, air, water, vapour content, evaporation and wind speed while producing benefits such as soil degradation reduction, enhanced biodiversity, pest and disease control A 2019 study published in Plant and Soil by researchers from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) established agroforestry systems in temperate and tropical regions, on average, reduced runoff, soil, organic carbon, nutrient and pollutant losses by 58%, 65%, 9%, 49%, and 50%, respectively compared to conventional agricultural systems. The researchers used silvoarable agroforestry, silvopastoral systems, linear tree planting, riparian and upland buffer strips to assess the water, soil, nutrient and pesticide losses. 

Deep Local Roots

Modern agroforestry worldwide takes into account the needs of each region, the soil, the unique crops grown and ensuring machinery can manoeuver easily within the parameters while, potentially, cashing in on the natural benefits provided by having shelterbelts, orchards or wooded areas integrated into the agricultural operation.

Subsoil Superheroes

Mycorrhizal fungi are the superheroes of soil. They travel along the microbiome’s root superhighway negotiating a symbiotic relationship with plants and dispersing mineral nutrients, fighting soil-borne pathogens by ensheathing feeder roots and acidifying soil and negotiating seed dispersal, seed establishment and soil niche differentiation to encourage plant diversity.  Fortunately, they work for the betterment of their world, delivering water, inorganic nutrients like ammonium, nitrate and phosphate to plants and help protect against, drought, salinity, heat, cold and significant metals. 


“By integrating trees into the agricultural landscape there is also a real potential to impact on the local economy by increasing economic stability diversification of local products and economies diversification of rural skills improving food and fuel security improving the cultural and natural environment, and landscape diversity combined with the positive impact of agroforestry on resource use, resource protection and mitigation against climate change, the benefits of agroforestry are slowly becoming better understood and documented.” – Stephen Briggs, Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust

Contributor: Diana Martin