Agroforestry is a ‘win-win’ for developing nations

Agroforestry is a “back to the future” concept, advocating a return to the origins of farming —trees and fields— rather than the modern concept of huge monocultures, says Tony Simons.

Walnut trees shelter maize crops in an agroforestry project in France. [AGROFORWARDproject/Flickr]

Walnut trees shelter maize crops in an agroforestry project in France.

Tony Simons, Director General of ICRAF spoke to’s Matthew Tempest.

“Agroforestry” is what, exactly?

A combination of agriculture and trees. We have 4.1 billion hectares of forest in the world, and 1.5 million hecatres of agricultural land. Agroforestry is trying to combine the two.

My understanding is it’s a sort of ‘Back to the Future’ idea. Instead of mechanisation, GM seeds and chemical fertilisers,  you want  to go back to how we used to farm, which is trees providing shade, nutrients, rainwater drainage…

Trees give you two things: trees are a ‘product’ and a ‘service’. Typical products would be firewood, timber, fruit, medicine, leaves for soil fertility, beverages, commodities, etc.


Because trees live more than one year, they’re not annual, they are the best plants at developing complicated compounds because they stay in the place 20, 30, 50, 100 years – they can’t move about. So they develop very complex chemicals to stop insects and disease and environmental stress, and those chemicals have the medicinal qualities. Two-thirds of all medicinal plants are trees.

So that’s trees as ‘product’, trees as ‘service’?

Stopping erosion, bringing up water from depth, providing a framework for biodiversity, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere – nothing is better than a tree at doing that.

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Tony Simons

Tony Simons is the Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). He has worked 27 years on issues at the tropical agriculture/forestry interface, within the private sector (Shell Forestry); academia (University of Oxford); official development assistance (ODA/DFID); and research (CGIAR). He holds degrees from Massey University and Cambridge University, and an Honorary Professorship in Tropical Forestry at the University of Copenhagen, and has published over 100 research papers. Tony is passionate about the transformative change that the private sector can bring to development.

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