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Last updated October 14, 2005

Issues and problems in modern farming
and the potential impacts of Woody Agriculture, part 3

Two large debates are raging regarding the short- and long-term effects of climate change and deforestation on the global ecosystem. At present, these debates are focused mainly on the specific manifestations of the effects, as there is general agreement that the overall results will be negative and pervasive. Woody Agriculture can play a role in reducing (and, possibly, reversing) the damage caused by deforestation and the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Global climate change

The "greenhouse effect" is still under some debate, but it is becoming very clear that even small amounts of global warming may have severe negative effects on global climate. Woody Agriculture has an unparalleled potential to reduce the buildup of CO2, the most important of the "greenhouse gases". Calculations indicate that, theoretically, if 1/4 of world crop lands could be converted to woody crops, this action alone could not only halt but actually reverse the increase in atmospheric CO2. No other action contemplated by any of the agencies dealing with global warming has such potential.

The potential use of trees (and other woody plants) to sequester carbon and thus ameliorate the projected greenhouse effect is severely limited by the need to use the world's most productive lands for food production. This results in several negatives: land area available for afforestation is limited, and only land unsuitable for agriculture is considered (i.e. steep, shallow-soiled, unstable, inaccessible, and/or infertile).

Once the feasibility of Woody Agriculture is demonstrated, farmers can (and will, based on clear historical precedent) adopt these woody crops systems on their best land, thus making the 1.5 x 109 hectares of the world's crop lands available to the carbon sequestration power of woody plants.

Global deforestation

A major factor contributing to global deforestation is the critical shortage in the developing countries of fuel wood for cooking. Woody Agriculture, because of the much greater photosynthetic potential, would allow farmers to grow their own fuel wood on the same ground they now use for food crops, without loss of food production. Large-scale plantings will produce far more fuel wood than the farmer can consume, and the fuel wood will be another profitable crop. This potential for greatly increased fuel wood production could have considerable impact on deforestation, to the extent that pressure on existing forests is relieved.

Yet another possible effect here is that fields derived from cleared tropical rainforest, when planted to annual crops, are notorious in their rapid degradation due to erosion and nutrient loss. Such degraded fields may reasonably be expected to support woody crops better than they can annuals, due to the deeper root systems and decreased tillage requirements. This could be another factor operating to remove pressure to cut remaining forests, if farmers can indeed sustain cropping potentials on lands already cleared.

Biomass energy production

In the developed world, large-scale mechanized Woody Agriculture would result in the annual production of great quantities of biomass, suitable for use as fuel for power generation. Hazelnuts, for example, have very dense nut shells which make excellent fuel; in addition, the wood from periodic coppicing will also be available for biomass fuels.

This ready availability could help stimulate a renewable biomass power industry, which would decrease reliance on fossil fuels (and, incidentally, add another positive effect in regard to global warming not included in the calculations above).

Read more
Part 8: The potential impacts of Woody Agriculture, part 4: Wildlife habitat; Conclusion
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