Sweden is learning from the world – can Denmark learn from Sweden?

Typically, we consider agroforestry a land use system mostly relevant in tropical climatic conditions and in the socio-political context of developing countries. However, Swedish farmers, scientists and organizations have recently started questioning this conviction. Should Denmark do the same?

Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America. These regions are typically the ones coming into mind when someone mentions agroforestry, the practice of combining forest management and agriculture. This is with good reason. Danish Forestry Extension, Skovdyrkernes international department, has worked in many of these regions with agroforestry as the main tool to enrich and strengthen local communities in a sustainable manner.

However, Sweden might become a country popping up in our heads when we discuss agroforestry in the future. In November last year, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Alnarp hosted the third national agroforestry conference under the title “Inspiration from the world, practice in Sweden” gathering professional farmers, scientists, international experts, students and politicians to share experiences with agroforestry and debate their applicability in a Swedish context. Interestingly, the conference is just one example of the Swedes recent investigations into the role of agroforestry in the Scandinavian climate.

The Swedish experiments

Between 2012-2015 Örebro University conducted a participatory research project in collaboration with local farmers to evaluate the potential of agroforestry systems in a Swedish context. And last year a Master’s thesis from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences concluded that agroforestry systems have the potential to significantly increase the resilience of Swedish agriculture. The thesis identified the agroforestry systems with the largest potential in Swedish conditions: Alley cropping, windbreaks and buffer strips.

But the Swedish investigations do not stop here. Two years ago, in Lönnstorp in the southern part of Sweden, an agroecological experiment saw the light of day. 14 ha of land were transformed into a transdisciplinary test area called SAFE (SITES Agroecological Field Experiment). The purpose of the test site is to compare an agroecologically intensified crop system based on an alley cropping design with a common organic crop rotation system, a perennial system and a contemporary conventional crop rotation system.

These are just some examples of the attention and emphasis that agroforestry currently receives in Sweden. The results indicate that there are solid grounds for seeing agroforestry systems as productive investments that simultaneously perform important environmental services in a Swedish context. Furthermore, as many of the Swedish experiments are conducted in the southern county of Skåne (the most agriculturally productive county in Sweden), many of the findings could be highly relevant to Danish conditions too. 

In this way, the developments in Sweden have the potential to change the Danish landscape where, according to Lars Holger Schmidt, senior advisor at Copenhagen University, agroforestry systems have largely disappeared - with a few important exceptions. Multifunctional hedgerows have maintained their presence in the landscape and permaculture systems and pig-poplar silvopasture systems, he says, are becoming increasingly popular.

EU – A problem becoming a solution?

There is not one single reason why agroforestry has decreased so much in Scandinavia the past decades. Population pressure and the disappearance of traditional life styles are definitely two of them. Another significant reason is the system of EU farming support. Through the years, the system has favoured a separation of trees from crops and livestock. EU policies are traditionally based on production and prefer rigid categories separating forestry and agriculture which disfavours agroforestry systems in the Common Agricultural Policy. In Denmark, for example, a farmer can have a maximum of 50 trees/ha to be eligible for agricultural subsidies.

There are signs that this is changing though. Agroforestry was included as a “new topic” under the forestry measure 222 in EU’s 2007-2013 Common Agricultural Policy allowing for support to establish agroforestry systems on agricultural land. Moreover, in the 2014-2020 Common Agricultural Policy this measure was extended to cover the establishment, regeneration and renovation of agroforestry systems.

It therefore might seem as if agroforestry is about to make a comeback in Scandinavia. Sweden already appear determined to welcome the land use system back from its journey south. The question stands: Will Denmark follow the Swedish example?

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