New EU forest strategy recognizes agroforestry

By Patrick Worms


Fertilising a young winter wheat agroforestry plot in Belgium – mixture of walnut and wild service trees planted at 29 x 8 m. Image courtesy of

Europe’s landscapes show surprisingly little cultural variation in any given climatic region. Where I live, in Belgium’s humid temperate zone, huge monoclonal cropfields stretch to the horizon, undisturbed by hedge or tree. Drive due east, through Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Russia, and much the same landscape will greet you all the way to the Urals. After the second world war, “Progress” came to mean consolidating farmland into huge fields, grubbing up hedges and woodlots, and pushing peasant farmers into semi-industrial farms—big, “clean”, mechanized fields.

In the European Union, the solid wall that divided agriculture from forestry for many decades contributed to this sorry state of affairs. Subsidies propped up trees in forests – and grubbed them up on farmland. Until 2006, any farmer with trees in his field was penalized for his temerity under the CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy: the area covered by the crowns of his trees was simply removed from the calculated surface of his field, on which his direct payment subsidy depended.  Good luck to you if you were a tree on the wrong side of the line. But even after 2006, arbitrary limits remained. For example, no more than 50 trees per hectare – irrespective of their age.

As the downsides of these industrial approaches to agriculture—polluted waterways, soils and air; vast soil erosion, growing rates of cancer among farmers, a rapid reduction in the number of farmed crop varieties etc. —became obvious, policymakers became interested in alternatives. First came set-aside (farmers paid to leave land fallow), various timid efforts to encourage farmers to re-plant their hedges and woodlots, and a growing recognition that agroforestry can play a role in European farming’s future. The maximum number of trees allowed per hectare rose to 200 three years ago. Rural Development funding can be used to plant trees on farms (if individual member states and regions chip in, too).


Young walnut trees in wheat (Hérault, France). Image courtesy of

In the current reform process of the CAP, agroforestry is increasingly recognized – thanks in part to a lobbying partnership between the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the European Agroforestry Federation earlier this year. The agroforestry alliance that EURAF convened around CAP reform in the spring kept European officials dealing with forestry in the loop. Sympathetic Members of the European Parliament kept agroforestry buzzing. And well-timed visits by key European Agroforesters, notably but not exclusively Alain Canet from the Association Française d’Agroforesterie, made all the difference.

But while trees are now officially welcome on Europe’s farms, the reverse is not yet true. A document called the European Forestry Strategy drives the continent’s intervention in the sector. The last version, published in 1998, said the job of forests was to generate timber, fibre and energy, and that was that. The 2007 Forest Action Plan was a bit broader. But until last Friday, when the European Commission published the strategy’s first full revision in fifteen years, crops were not welcome in forests.

The new Forest Strategy (available here) is different. The talk is now of forests being “multifunctional, serving economic, social and environmental purposes”. Growing links between “international food, feed, fibre and fuel markets” are causing “unexpected market disturbances”, and encouraging fresh thinking. The first order of business for the new strategy says it all: it is to “ensure that the multifunctional potential of EU forests is managed in a sustainable and balanced way, enabling our forests’ vital ecosystem services to function correctly.”

Is it thus any surprise that this new Forest Strategy recognises agroforestry for the first time?

“Member States should use the opportunities given in the new Rural Development Regulation and prioritise investments in: (…) achieving nature and biodiversity objectives; adapting to climate change; conserving genetic resources; forest protection and information; and creating new woodland and agro-forestry systems.”

Well, yes. It is. Agroforestry has made many converts in European policy circles, but it is still far from being an obvious part of the rural toolkit. It still often seen as either too old (Why revert to our great-grandparents’ poor farming style?) or too new (Where are those modern agroforestry farmlands?). It is counter-intuitive to many – and it still seems radical to some.

But with Europe’s new Forestry Strategy, a small door for agroforestry has opened, signaling that the wall between forestry and agriculture here is gently, but surely, collapsing.

Patrick Worms is ICRAF Senior Science Policy Adviser

Download full EU Forest Strategy at:

Related links

Advancing agroforestry on the policy agenda: a Guide for decision-makers 

EU strategy on adaptation to climate change Media resource sheet, includes agroforestry systems established in France as an example. 16 April 2013.


EURAF Presentation within a session of the 5 February 2013 FAO-MICCA webinar:

All information of the learning event is available on:'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

You may also like...