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Harnessing the power of forests for resilient agriculture

Photo by Zetong Li

A Brazilian farmer’s parable about the effects of a local forest on his crops and his region has stayed with Ludmila Rattis, a scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, for years. In the telling, a water spring was an eye, and the trees surrounding it were eyelashes. Mother Nature took care of the forest, the animals who lived there, and the farmer’s nearby fields, which produced big ears of corn. But, he noted, “the tears of the earth only flow when the eyelashes surround the eye. After we removed the vegetation from the spring, it wept for a couple more years. Then it stopped crying.”

The wider world is finally waking up to the strong interdependencies between forests, crops, animals, and people described by this farmer. Research is increasingly revealing the vital benefits of trees and forests for agriculture, including their role in regulating local and regional climate, protecting water resources, improving the health of rural workers, restoring soil fertility, reducing soil erosion, and fostering pollination.

Photo by Altaf Shah

In the tropics, evidence is mounting connecting the reduction of forested area to changes in climate, and associated impacts in agricultural yields. Future agricultural productivity in these regions is at risk from deforestation-induced changes in heat extremes, and from a decline in mean rainfall, rainfall frequency, or rainy season length. Forest ecosystems are also a central component that regulates hydrological cycles, by intercepting rainfall and reducing runoff which, in turn, improves moisture retention, creates optimal conditions for crops, and reduces drought impacts. Taking into account the relationship between forests and water is central for climate mitigation, as well as adaptation options in agriculture. 

Heat stress is associated with over 650 billion hours of annual lost labour globally every year, and it is estimated that, as a result of deforestation, 2.8 million outdoor workers in the tropics have been affected by the loss of safe thermal working conditions in the last 15 years. Tackling tropical deforestation is critical for adapting to climate extremes, and maintaining healthy and productive conditions for rural workers.

Forest ecosystems also sustain healthy populations of beneficial insects and natural pollinators that enhance cross-fertilization and biological pest control. This helps reduce reliance on synthetic agrochemicals and increase genetic diversity and disease resilience among plant offsprings.

Improving forest-agriculture links

The upcoming (22-26 July) meeting of the Committee on Forestry (COFO 27) of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meeting in Rome presents an opportunity to acknowledge and address these issues. It is time for policymakers to recognise the tangible benefits of forests and trees for the agricultural sector, reimagine agricultural production systems to capitalise on these benefits, and end the antagonism that has tended to characterise the interaction between forest and agricultural interests.

The meeting agenda, especially the themes of “climate change and integrated water management”  and scaling up actions on agriculture and forestry linkages”, set the stage for rethinking the status quo. It offers an opportunity to promote measures to enhance and expand agroforestry systems, protect forests for the cooling and rainfall benefits that they provide, promote deforestation-free agricultural supply chains, and support pollination- and biodiversity-friendly agricultural practices.


Photo by Kawê Rodrigues

Consolidating the evidence to harness benefits

A better relationship between forestry and agriculture is not just desirable. It is essential for sustainability of both. Synergistic responses must be found to sustainably manage forests and transform unsustainable food systems. This means a paradigm shift.

To advance such a beneficial agenda, a consortium – the FAO, the Stockholm Environment Institute, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and other partners – is working to build a robust evidence base for practitioners and policymakers that will help them harness the climate benefits of forests for agriculture in ways that go beyond carbon sequestration.

This work will consolidate the growing body of research from diverse scientific fields on the topic. The report, to be published by FAO ahead of COP 30, will provide advice on promoting sustainable landscapes based on current knowledge. Compiling this information and putting what is known into context are critically important. The types of benefits provided, and their relevance, depend on many factors that are very specific to each location, ecosystem service, and agricultural practice in question. Moreover, because the research on this topic has been conducted at different scales and by different disciplines, it is hard for practitioners and policymakers to apply the knowledge in real-world situations.

Cocoa offers a case study

These issues are surfacing in our recent research and fieldwork examining the sustainability of cocoa production in Ghana. Forecasts for Ghana, the world’s second-largest cocoa producer, indicate that cocoa production is likely to be 40% below targets – the result of a combination of issues, including the proliferation of a virus and swollen shoot disease. Meanwhile, reduced production is leading world market prices to soar.

In recent years, large areas of tropical forests have been lost to cocoa cultivation in Ghana. These losses, in turn, led to losses of vital water sheds, soil fertility, pollinators, beneficial organisms, and the cooling effects of trees. Adaptive and corrective responses such as irrigation, hand pollination, and pesticide application are too difficult to implement or entail labour and capital costs beyond farmers’ capacities. Moreover, the loss of forest cover has exposed the sensitive cocoa crop to extreme weather conditions, leading to diseases, low yields, pervasive pests, and livelihood challenges. For many, cocoa production is no longer a viable economic venture. Cocoa is being abandoned for other crops such as oil palm and cashew or non-farm economic activity – with social and economic ramifications. As a cocoa farmer in Kyebi, Ghana, told us, “Most of the forests and trees have been removed, and this area has almost become savannah grassland. So it doesn’t rain when it should, the dry season is prolonged, and the heat is intense. Now, the cocoa trees struggle to fruit.” 

The situation in Ghana underlines the importance of understanding and acting on current knowledge about forest-agriculture linkages. Carefully curated, integrated land-use models and practices that recognise the benefits of forests for agriculture will be central to revamping and sustaining Ghana’s cocoa sector – and crops and forests worldwide.

With the world inching close to its ecological and climatic tipping points, the time has come to elevate functional yet overlooked complementary land-use designs that can catalyse positively reinforcing loops between adaptation, mitigation, and livelihood sustenance.

The Brazilian farmer’s tale of harmony with nature illustrates this balance. Science is revealing the deep insights that can emerge from ancient knowledge systems that can contribute to addressing one of humanity’s most pressing environmental and livelihood challenges.