Trees or Crops?

“Traditionally, reforestation and agriculture have not sat well together, both requiring land that has sufficient nutrients, rainfall and temperatures conducive to growth. And agriculture, of course, poses its own environmental challenges, being responsible … for around 23 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.”

                                                ~ Bianca Nogrady

Planting trees is the response of choice to climate change and global warming — rather than actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But market and cultural forces continue the drive to convert forested areas into farms and ranches to supply food for growing populations. Thus, there is a conundrum as to how to provide greater foodstuffs, yet reduce emissions.

Perhaps it isn’t a matter of “either / or.”

Writer Sami Grover reports, “Plant-forward diets in rich countries could have an astounding ‘double dividend’ climate impact thanks to their combination of direct emissions reductions and potential land-use changes for carbon sequestration, according to the findings of a new study.”

So, eat less meat and save the planet. Easily said, but people really like meat and it provides important and necessary nutrients.

Grover continues, “Now, a new study … suggests combining afforestation with mushroom cultivation could displace some need for cattle ranching, while simultaneously regenerating biodiverse, minimally managed, mixed-species hardwood forests in the tropics.”

“Specifically, researchers Paul W. Thomas and Luis-Bernardo Vazquez looked at the potential for cultivating native tree species that have been inoculated with Lactarius indigo (aka indigo milk cap), a mushroom that is highly prized, easy to identify, and already grows naturally across much of South, Central, and North America. What they found was that, theoretically at least, mushroom production could actually outcompete cattle ranching for nutritional value.”

“The trees inoculated with milk caps would be combined with a mix of different native species for biodiversity, and there would be minimal forest management needed year-round. Once established, the main activity would then be sending in foragers to harvest the mushrooms when conditions were right for fruiting.” 

Journalist Bianca Nogrady similarly looked at conflicts between reforestation and agriculture and also found, “… the two activities are not mutually exclusive. Agriculture can work with reforestation to play a vital role in climate change mitigation – sequestering carbon – while delivering the added benefit of more nutrient-rich soils, less fertiliser use, less water use, increased production and better food and economic security.”

“One farming approach that delivers climate change mitigation, food security and economic security is agroforestry. ‘Agroforestry is basically mixing trees together with other crops in an integrated system,’ says researcher Delphine Clara Zemp. For example, timber trees can be planted alongside coffee or tea bushes, fruit trees alongside turmeric, a banana plantation intermingled with sweet potato, oil palms alongside coconut palms.”

Since the clear conflict of the ‘farm or forest’ approach doesn’t work very well for our planet and its residents’ health, perhaps the collaborative approaches suggested by Grover and Nogrady are the answer. Sure, we should plant more trees and reduce emissions, but by being a bit more innovative and taking agroforestry more seriously, we just might have a possible solution.

Who knows what combinations of plants might be tried? It could even be fun.

Additional information:

Sami Grover, Growing Trees and Mushrooms Together Could Merge Afforestation Efforts With Food Production, March 3, 2022, TreeHugger

Bianca Nogrady We’ve Got Carbon Capture All Wrong, April 6, 2021, WIRED

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