Palm oil has gotten a bad rap in recent years, and not without reason. That bad rap comes from the way the majority of oil palm in Southeast Asia is farmed, where 85% of the world’s palm oil comes from. Forests have been cleared to make way for vast oil palm monocultures, displacing indigenous populations and ravaging local ecosystems in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.
And it’s not just oil palm. From corn to bananas to potatoes, monoculture has increasingly become the norm. But as the world’s population grows and requires more and more food, the strategy of increasing farm acreage at the expense of forests and grasslands is not one that our planet can afford.
To that problem, agroforestry presents a solution. Agroforestry entails utilizing complex systems of interaction between different crops, trees, shrubs, and sometimes livestock, all on the same plot. While it undoubtedly takes more thoughtful and careful setup than a monoculture plantation, once an agroforestry system is up and running, this patchwork of interactions begin feeding off each other to improve soil health, water retention, carbon sequestration, and more. The end result is not just healthier land, but more output from the same amount of land.
To put it another way, take a look at Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s recently announced “Fifteen Minute City” initiative to build a more livable Paris. If the before picture represents a monoculture plantation, the after picture represents an agroforestry system.
Agroforestry leverages the strengths of each member of the plot—whether that’s fixing nitrogen, providing shade and leaf litter, preventing erosion, or keeping soils moist. The aim is to replace monotony and single-use spaces with thriving ecosystems. That all comes together to produce a better place to live, whether you’re a cyclist in Paris or a mango tree in Tanzania.
For oil palm farmers, agroforestry comes with a slew of additional advantages. Beyond the environmental benefits, agroforestry allows for a diversification of both income and diet, especially when high value crops are mixed into the agroforestry system. Oil palms take three to four years to begin bearing fruit, and once they do, fruits are harvested roughly every six months. Agroforestry gives oil palm farmers a steady stream of income in the meantime and increases household food security and nutritional diversity.
Meanwhile, in the background of all this, the complex web of interactions on the agroforestry plot is working to ensure that once the oil palms do fruit, they do so big time. Evidence from a pilot study in Brazil found that per-hectare oil palm yields in agroforestry systems were more than 20% higher than yields from oil palm monocultures. The same intermixed legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables that give farmers a year-round income are also hard at work giving oil palms a year-round source of nitrogen, phosphorus, a steady pH, and more. And all while the palm trees give them intermittent shade, slower wind speeds, and damper, more stable soil.
The result of this continuous delicate dance: happier crops, happier palms, happier farmers, and a happier environment.