Tackling food system challenges through silvopasture: insights from an expert workshop

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With 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions planet-wide, the livestock sector is at the center of conversations around sustainability of food production. Yet, discussions are often polarized and lack nuance. Contrary to general understanding, examples exist of diverse livestock systems with low environmental footprint, resilience to climate change, and capacity to respond to market demand, while meeting nutritional requirements and livelihood needs of smallholder farmers.

Silvopastoral systems, which combine livestock with trees or other woody perennials and forages, emerge as a promising alternative to tackle environmental problems of livestock production. The structural and functional integration of system components allows for positive biophysical interactions, which then give rise to benefits in terms of productivity, diversification, animal wellbeing and a range of other ecosystem services. Also, their carbon sequestration potential can be significant. Silvopasture is already widely practiced in many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, USA and Europe – but little is known about its application in other regions in the Global South, which face unique socio-economic and environmental challenges with high human population density, persistent poverty and hunger, and increasingly adverse weather.

To bring together the latest knowledge about success factors of silvopastoral systems and their potential to deliver diverse benefits in smallholder communities in Asia and Africa, a silvopasture research workshop was organized at the Headquarters of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT in Rome, Italy, from 5 to 7 December 2023. The event brought together 30 researchers from 12 countries, including 10 online participants.

Accelerating sharing and learning

Over the past 50 years, the main emphasis of investigations on silvopastoral systems has been on biophysical aspects, while socio-economic and transdisciplinary research has largely lagged. However, there is a growing recognition of the need to better understand these aspects of designing and managing silvopastoral systems, including environmental and financial (e)valuations, effective and equitable incentives for sustainable intensification, and co-design of contextually relevant interventions together with the land users and other stakeholders. Furthermore, interdisciplinary research is needed to examine silvopastoral systems from different angles and capture important trade-offs.

Reflections of the participants, joining the event from different parts of world, pointed to the need to accelerate sharing and learning across regions. Success cases in establishing and adopting sustainable silvopastoral systems need to be examined closely to understand to what extent they can serve as models that could be adapted to other regions. This transfer of lessons learnt would require proper adjustments, to take into account differences in context, varying degrees of pressure on natural resources, differences in human population density, locally specific climate vulnerabilities, and the institutional context. Factors such as market governance mechanisms and structural, socio-cultural, behavioral, and gender and equity considerations are also essential to translate best practices for sustainable use of resources into action on the ground.

Participants in the silvopasture expert workshop. Credit: Julia Tippins/ Bioversity International

“Given the wide diversity of silvopastoral experiences and contexts around the world, exchanging information about the main lessons learnt in each context not only provides important tools for new developments –  it also helps enriching current practices and finding new approaches to boost adoption or upscaling and benefits in areas where silvopastoral systems have been ongoing for longer periods”, says Julián Chará, Research Director at CIPAV, Centre for Research on Sustainable Agriculture, who delivered the keynote address at the workshop.

From day one of the workshop, clarifying definitions of silvopastoral systems emerged as a key step to ensure a common language among workshop participants. A significant area of discussion was also the optimal design of silvopastoral systems, encompassing suitable tree-forage-livestock combinations and management approaches that maximize positive interactions, as well as appropriate co-design processes to ensure the relevance of proposed interventions and support the adoption of improved practices.

Building on and enhancing ongoing efforts

The three days of exchanges revealed emerging opportunities for joint research. Important efforts to evaluate and promote silvopastoral systems and practices have already been made by the OneCGIAR Initiatives on Sustainable Intensification in Mixed Farming Systems and Livestock and Climate; the Global Network on Silvopastoral Systems (GNSPS), and FAO’s Working Group on Dryland Forests and Agrosilvopastoral Systems.

A diverse set of decision-support tools developed by the Alliance and partners already exist that can be further improved and adapted to silvopastoral contexts. The Tropical Forages selection tool contains information on 180 tropical and sub-tropical forage species, their adaptation and potential use. The Diversity for Restoration tool provides spatially explicit recommendations of best portfolios of tree species to be planted for different purposes and site contexts, including forage production and live fencing. The tool covers several countries across the tropics, newest additions being Ghana and Lao PDR, two countries with significant interest for developing and expanding silvopastoral systems. The Cacaodiversity tool provides guidance for suitable tree species as well as the spatial design of cacao agroforestry systems. These are useful tools whose features could be combined to generate recommendation on silvopastoral system design in different contexts.

“In an effort to improve productivity within silvopastoral systems and reducing the negative environmental impacts, models for specific local contexts should be developed”, says Professor Daniel A. Ofori of the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, one of the workshop participants. “Species selection and their deployment on the ground have a significant effect on the ecosystem service provision. These will vary according to location, local climate, soil type, farming system and farmer aspirations. Consequently, selection of trees and fodder species for silvopastoral systems should be based on the principle of choosing the right species for the right place for right people. The decision-support tools developed by the Alliance and partners can be used to accomplish this.”

Workshop participants identified ideas for future collaborative work. One knowledge gap regards the decarbonization potential of silvopasture in drylands. Another area that requires joint work centers around sustainability frameworks and the need to develop monitoring protocols for silvopastoral systems; a proper systematization of findings from pilot experiments and case studies would enable to carry out comparisons and draw conclusions on sustainability of different systems. Finally, collaborations across regions, particularly South-South linkages, should be actively promoted. Participants returned home with a concrete action plan to address the identified knowledge gaps through in-depth reviews, refinement of existing frameworks and tools, and above all, further networking to accelerate learning.

Read more about the workshop results in the workshop report here.

The event was funded by the OneCGIAR Initiative on Sustainable Intensification in Mixed Farming Systems, with co-funding from the Livestock and Climate Initiative. The Diversity for Restoration -decision support tools for Ghana and Lao PDR were developed in partnership with the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana and the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute of Lao PDR, respectively, with funding support from the Mixed Farming Systems Initiative.

Featured image: Cattle grazing under trees on pasture in Xiengkhouang province, Lao PDR. Living fences can be seen in the background. Credit: S. Vongkhamho/NAFRI.

Author: Authors: Sarah Bracke, Barbara Vinceti, Riina Jalonen. Editor: José Luis Urrea.

Featured image credit: B.Vicenti

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