Jonas Steinfeld – The many shades of green of agroforestry systems

A conversation with Jonas Steinfeld, a researcher and consultant based in Brazil specialising in agroforestry systems, about the many different levels of complexity in agroforestry. Does complexity lead to more or less work? Does complexity lead to more or less carbon storage, and why? And are complex agroforestry systems more profitable? The scientific world has been quite clear up until now that adding more complexity to agriculture, especially with perennials like trees, almost always makes massive environmental differences. So what is holding us back? Why aren’t we planting trees everywhere?


Learn from one of the leading scientists studying agroforestry systems in Brazil, the global hotspot and epicentre of agroforestry. After more than four years of PhD researching the many different levels of complexity in agroforestry, what conclusions can we draw?


Soil complexity affects carbon storage, nutrient cycling, and water regulation, and sandy soils have a higher potential for agroforestry carbon sequestration.

”We looked at a lot of soil indicators to measure the environmental benefits. And well, first of all, we could really confirm that there is a very solid relationship between this complexity and the amount of carbon stored in the soils, the nutrient cycling capacity, water regulation, for all these ecosystem services had quite a solid statistical relationship with this complexity. But there was another factor that was really important, and that was the soil type. What we could see very clearly is that on the very sandy soils, we were actually quite lucky to have this variety of soils also in our sample. And we could see that on the very sandy soils, the effect of this complexity was very strong. So, there was a very big difference between a simplified system and a highly complex system.” Jonas Steinfeld

”One thing that is very important in the soil to fix the carbon is actually the clay inside the soil. And so sandy soils, by nature, have very little clay. And so, it’s very difficult for sandy soils to actually store a lot of carbon in the long term. And what we could see is that this increasing complexity really increases the carbon stocks in the sandy soils, and particularly in this stabilized fraction.” Jonas Steinfeld


Jonas discusses how competition is taken into account in more complex systems, inspired by nature, with different life cycles and nutrient demands among tree species.

”Competition is something that, of course, the farmers take into account, but they, especially those with more complex systems, take a lot of inspiration from nature. And I mean, if you look at the natural forests, particularly here in the tropics, you see just so many species, and of course they compete, but they all have different life cycles and different demands. So, if all the tree species have the same growth cycle and the same nutrient demand at the same point in time, then, of course, you would expect them to compete. […] So, actually, what the eucalyptus tree does, is it takes up a lot of nutrients, it takes up a lot of water, but also, from deeper depths, it puts these nutrients and water in its biomass. And then they cut this biomass and use it sort of as fertiliser for the crop. Well, this is another way you can basically turn competition into facilitation through this management.” Jonas Steinfeld


According to Jonas, there are unfortunately still a number of factors holding us back.

”So, you asked about research. So the research on the environmental benefits is very strong. I don’t think we need much more research on that, to be honest. There’s a very strong evidence base already. What there isn’t, I think, we still need some more research on the economic performance, and how can you actually choose the right crop combinations. Because it’s not any crop combination that will work well, both in terms of ecology and economically as well. And so there we need much more research. And also, what are the factors that actually determine whether an agroforestry system will be successful or not at the farm scale? So, what farm size does? What type of complexity work well? Access to the markets is a big thing. How can that improve?” Jonas Steinfeld


Jonas discusses the complexity of agroforestry systems, from simple to highly complex, and how it relates to ecosystem services and labour requirements.

”Agroforestry systems can go from very, very simplified all the way up to highly complex, almost looking like a natural forest. But then there’s also all these sorts of shades of green, and here in Brazil, since agroforestry is actually going quite strong here, we have very good examples of all these whole gradings of complexity, all these increasing levels of complexity.” Jonas Steinfeld

”We were able to look at the relationship between this complexity and the ecosystem services. In the end, we asked ourselves how complex they have to be to really deliver a lot of the benefits, and then something that was also very important to me, because it came back on other conversations I had with farmers, was the labour requirements. So how much more work does it take to manage increasingly complex systems?” Jonas Steinfeld

”I personally don’t think that the sole aim should be to have as much complexity as possible. Because, really, the right degree of complexity depends on each individual farmer’s context. And it could be that a super complex is best for a farmer. But it could also be very simplified or something in between, which works best. And that’s what we should aim for. Because even the most simplified agroforestry system is already much more beneficial for the environment than a monoculture.” Jonas Steinfeld


Any single tree added is valid; finding the right complexity for the context is important. Agroforestry systems should be tailored to the individual farmer’s context with the right degree of complexity.

”Even the most simplified agroforestry system is already much more beneficial for the environment than a monoculture. I see there are people entering or starting agroforestry because they are sort of in love with this complexity. And really, the aim is to have the most complex system and recreate a forest, basically with crops. And that’s amazing. But it just won’t work for everyone. And so, I think we shouldn’t be dogmatic about it […]. To me, any single tree that’s added is already valid. And it’s really about finding the right degree of complexity for the right context”.

Jonas Steinfeld

”In the beginning, there were those grasses; they might have chosen species that invaded the three rows. And so, you will have to read them and mould them all the time. Then they chose a different species of punch grass. And these grasses are actually very productive, but they don’t spread. So, they actually stay in the place where you plant them. And so that already eliminates a lot of additional labour. And then what farmers mostly do is mould them with brush cutters, so that’s still quite a manual task. And now they’re developing; they actually walk behind tractors that cut the grass with a sickle bar, and then throw it on the side to be placed underneath the tree rows to work as mulch…” Jonas Steinfeld


Koen and Jonas also talked about:

  • Regenerative agriculture, diversification, and mindset change in agriculture
  • Market access for cash crops, but even more secondary and tertiary products is key
  • Rural vs urban




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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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