Are trees the future of UK food production?
Farms or forests? Which is the future?
Well, neither and both.
Agroforestry is the combination of trees with crops and/or animals.
There are two main types
Silvoarable: tree with crops in between. e.g. apples and wheat.
Silvopastoral: trees with animal feed in between. e.g. Chestnuts and pigs.
While everyone loves a bit of fruit what is really needed are sustainable staple crops, food you can eat lots of everyday and for that the best option is nut crops. Of the 5 nut trees that grow in the UK, 3 are worth focusing on - Chestnuts, Walnuts and Hazelnuts.
History – UKs historic deforestation.
What happened to all the nut trees? History time!
It’s the early 1700’s, Surrey is the heart of UK walnut production but suddenly the Great Frost of 1709 destroys most walnut trees in northern Europe.
Time skip '100ish years later'
It’s the 1800s’, the Napoleonic Wars has started and guns are needed, orders are given to chop down walnut trees if you see them and send wood to make gun butts, again in the Crimean War and again for WW1 so by 1919, woodland cover was at an all-time low of 5%.
Even since the last big war (WW2) We’ve lost half the hedgerows, UK’s largest priority habitat, and of those that remain, over half are poorly managed.
Globalization gone nuts
A whopping 72% of UK land is currently used by farmers for food production but the uptake of agroforestry in the UK is lower than in other countries like Spain and Portugal, where it is already quite common.
9% of Europe’s farmland is devoted to agroforestry but the UK lags behind at only 3%. But why bother? why trees? Why nut trees?
Because today less than 10% of the timber used in Britain is home-grown
40% of the worlds walnuts comes from California and the UK is their 5th largest market.
Turkey grows most of the world’s hazels nuts and we import over 2 million tonnes but it’s a UK native plant!
The Local commercial demand is great, but the UK is relying heavily on others
Modern Environmentalism and Reforestation
The environmental benefits of agroforestry are well known, boosting biodiversity, soil health, carbon capture and flood management.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) advised the UK to aim for 10% agroforestry on cropland and grassland and increasing hedgerows by 40% to meet the 2050 net-zero targets.
This means planting 200,000km of new hedgerows – the equivalent of half the length the UK road network. The reforestation of the UK through agroforestry is a project with massive job potential and other economic benefits so why the hesitation?
Subsidies, profits and incentives
Are farmers the enemy? No.
Farmers have been trying to do their bit to increase tree cover and get hedgerows on their land but lack government support, particularly in England.
Both Wales and Scotland support agroforestry with grants, providing both capital and 5-year revenue support but no support is available in England despite farmers making repeated requests to Westminster.
Another factor is price – a study found that compared to other Europeans, Brits are concerned the most with price and the least with sustainability even though they enjoyed the cheapest shopping basket.
Agroforestry could be a great opportunity to maximise the economic output of land. Adding tree crops to a farm offers a disaster-proof asset that is 100% guaranteed to increase in value but new long-term investments carry extra risk. How much risk can the individual farmer be expected to take for the benefit of others?
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