The ancient climate solution you’ve probably never heard of
Climate change solutions come in two forms: mitigation and adaptation. While many proposed techniques focus on one or the other, some offer the benefit of slowing the global rise in temperature while adapting to now inevitable impacts. One such solution has been around for thousands of years.
Forests, farms, and the future
Silvopasture, the ancient practice of combining timber and livestock production, is an effective way to reduce methane emissions from livestock while diversifying farmers’ incomes. Silvo comes from the Latin word for forest, so the term literally means forest-pasture. But what does that look like?
Imagine you have a pasture: maybe some cows, sheep, or pigs sprawled out across several acres, eating grass to their hearts’ content. There are two parts to this picture — one, the livestock, and two, the plants they are eating.
Now imagine you add a third part to the mix: trees. With all three elements you’d have a silvopasture operation.
It can work in the reverse, too, by thinning an existing plot of trees and adding plants for foraging.
Silvopasture as an alternative to separate pastures and tree plantations tends to be adopted by farmers who want to improve their cash flow (under the right conditions, income from livestock is supplemented periodically by income from timber, making silvopasture an attractive means of increasing output and profit). But an additional benefit of this integrated management system is its contribution toward reducing CO2 emissions and combating climate change.
A promising solution
The ancient Romans — who released pigs into oak woodlands to eat acorns — likely didn’t think their agroforestry techniques would help solve a future planetary dilemma. Even through the last century, silvopasture was commonly practiced for its mutual benefits to the trees, grasses, and livestock. As it turns out, the Romans, and many other civilizations who historically combined timber and livestock production, were implementing what would later become one of the most powerful climate change solutions with respect to reduction and implementation potential.
According to Project Drawdown, pastures with trees sequester five to ten times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless. That carbon is stored in biomass (i.e. in plants and animals) and in soil. Done properly, silvopasture could help offset the greenhouse gas emissions produced by livestock production, which account for a significant portion of all manmade emissions. Silvopasture can also increase the productivity of both timber and livestock operations, meaning less wasted resources and, thus, less wasted energy.
It is estimated that, if expanded globally, silvopasture operations can reduce carbon emissions by 31.2 gigatons and boost farmers’ financial gains by $699 billion by 2050. That’s in addition to protecting farmers from the unavoidable impacts of climate change like extreme flooding and drought.
And that’s where the mitigation/adaptation jargon ties in: silvopasture mitigates climate change by averting and sequestering greenhouse gases, and it helps farmers adapt to inevitable impacts by diversifying their income and providing insulation from changes that will affect their livelihoods.
A win-win for the climate and those whose very lives depend on it, this long-practiced farming technique demonstrates the potential for existing ideas to inform our changing future. And just like reforestation or species conservation, it exemplifies how concepts found in nature — like animals and plants benefitting each other — offer our best hope for reversing the trend of ecological decline.