World Agroforestry Congress gathers huge group of global boosters in France

Photo by  Cameron Offer  on  Unsplash

Photo by Cameron Offer on Unsplash

Written by Erik Hoffner, Mongabay

The 4th World Agroforestry Congress aims to bridge the gap between agroforestry science and its practical implementation worldwide.

  • Over 1,200 attendees from all over the world are here presenting new research and sharing ideas for implementation of this agricultural technique that is good for food security, biodiversity, the climate, and more.

  • One topic gaining extra attention at this Congress is the involvement of the private sector in boosting agroforestry’s implementation worldwide, because it can be quite profitable to do so while also supporting people and planet.

  • Agroforestry combines trees alongside shrubs, crops and livestock in systems that produce food, support biodiversity, build soil horizons and water tables, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Mongabay has been publishing a special series on its implementation and impact worldwide.

Day two of the World Agroforestry Congress was in full swing today as the 1,200 plus attendees streamed into workshops and swirled among some 600+ posters hanging in the halls which outline new agroforestry research, underpinning the notion of agroforestry seeming a rather academic topic, yet this group is exploring many angles to advance this climate- and biodiversity-positive agricultural practice during the 4th such congress this week in Montpellier, France, including film and humor:

“How many agroforesters does it take to change the climate?” joked Keefe Keeley of US-based Savanna Institute during an impromptu meet up of  some of the 65 American delegates here, while Andrew Campbell, CEO of Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) quipped in a tweet depicting a large group of attendees, “Collective noun for agroforestry researchers? A stand!”

All of this excitement and ferment inspires Emmanuel Torquebiau, a Congress organizer and senior scientist with the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). “There are journalists here from 30+ media outlets from many countries here, and French TV produced four stories about it last week,” he told me. “Also, we had 1,850 people attending the public event on Sunday we organized with the French Association for Agroforestry. These facts are proof that the Congress is bridging the gap between science, society and policy, which is the event’s goal.”

Beyond the excitement, there’s a very serious side to the Congress, focused as it is on issues like food security, biodiversity, and perhaps most importantly, the climate, as Torquebiau stated: “Yesterday I was thrilled by the many interesting discussions about agroforestry in climate mitigation and adaptation, I really hope that the Congress contributes to that conversation.”

Because agroforestry is seen as a solution for this issue while boosting food security levels and biodiversity in the agricultural landscape due to its incorporation of useful trees and shrubs with annual crops, Mongabay has been producing a series highlighting its global implementation for the last year.

As editor of this series I was tasked with moderating a plenary session yesterday concerned with one of the most critical questions for agroforestry’s future as an effective solution: private investment. While NGO and governmental support waxes and wanes, and Wall Street invests billions in carbon-sucking technologies that are still in the concept stage, what is greatly needed in the short run is sustained investment from the private sector to help this carbon-positive agricultural technology (which is an already proven one, sequestering 45 gigatons of carbon globally, a figure that grows yearly by .74 according to study in Nature).

These are facts that I argued in the Washington Post recently and which I reiterated from the stage yesterday. But what is to motivate private investors to back agroforestry, truly? The profit motive, my panelists all agreed. Tristan LeComte, co-founder of PUR Projet, illustrated graphically how profitable it can be for companies to include agroforestry in their supply chains, vs the very basic concept of ‘offsetting’ where one just grows trees for the carbon benefit. Rather, agroforestry ‘insetting’ brings the financial benefits right into their products and adds value, adding up to a calculated return on investment that can reach 68%, he suggested.

I joked rather poorly that this is where the rubber, an agroforestry product in some regions, meets the road, because all the good research and training agroforestry boosters can do is ultimately limited by the funding behind it.

One popular example of agroforestry product development having a big impact is in the exhibit hall, where ACIAR’s team is helping Dorothy Luana of Papua New Guinea show off her organization’s galip nuts, a delicious roasted snack that has been a long time staple in PNG but which with a dozen years of ACIAR support is now reaching an audience far beyond the Pacific island country. In fact, this particular audience has already wiped out their supply.

As ACIAR’s Lisa Borthwick told me, people love the taste but also the story. “It’s gone from a backyard benefit to an industry that promotes nutrition plus food security” and one that bolsters entrepreneurs, she continued, “We support entrepreneurs like Dorothy, who invented the nut drying system the product uses, and she has passed it along to her women’s group, so it’s also about women’s empowerment.”

This is not to say that research is not core to this event, the exchanges among the scientists is robust, no less so for the 150 young researchers from developing countries whose attendance fees were fully funded by the conference.

After the impromptu meet up of US-based agroforestry proponents, Savanna Institute’s Keeley argued to me that this movement, while best known from the tropics, is taking firm hold in temperate regions too (a fact also underscored by the location of the conference in France, where field trips will soon take attendees to visit agroforestry projects, some of which have been in operation for decades):

“The group from all corners of the US we [have] together in France reflects the communities interested in agroforestry back at home: farmers, scientists, business people, conservationists, and other community members working toward food and farming systems that provide more than high yields of industrial commodities,” he said. “Agroforestry helps provide all the other things our lives depend on: clean water, a stable climate, buffers against floods, nutritious food, habitat for wildlife like pollinators, and beauty.”

Originally published by Mongabay on May 21, 2019