Silvopasture as key driver to promote circular economy in Europe

Despite the great potential of silvopasture as an agroforestry practice that increases the sustainability of livestock systems and helps prevent forest fires, a recent study reveals that it is not extensively used in Europe.

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In light of the recent regulations and actions supporting circular economy, it seems clear that the European Union recognizes climate change as a main challenge jeopardizing sustainability and rural development in the whole of Europe, especially, in its Mediterranean area. Several are the threats this area faces, including drought, wildfires and rural depopulation.

In order to overcome these challenges and promote climate change mitigation and adaptation, the European Commission is adopting different strategies including support to the rural bioeconomy through its research and innovation programmes, funding projects such as the H2020 GO-GRASS.

The GO-GRASS project, coordinated by the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering-ATB, aims to create innovative business opportunities in rural areas based on grassland and green fodder focusing on their potential for replication throughout rural communities in the EU.

As partner of this project, a team from the University of Santiago de Compostela-USC, led by EFIMED collaborator Rosa Mosquera, analysed and described the policy definitions and current situation of permanent and temporary grassland in the EU, but also silvopasture. Silvopasture, as the deliberate integration of a woody component (trees/shrubland) with grazed pastures as understory, highlights as a powerful tool to increase the sustainability of livestock farming systems reducing the use of concentrates, since the woody component provides feed for animals. In the current context of potential shortage for animal feed supply as the consequence of the war in Ukraine, silvopasture offers, in addition to climate change mitigation and adaptation, an upgrading in autonomy and food security for the EU. However, it is not an extensively used practice in Europe.

According to this study and as appreciated in Figure 1, silvopasture distribution in Europe in 2006 and 2012 was more relevant in the south of Europe with low representation in the north. Worryingly, in 2018, there is a clear reduction of silvopasture all over Europe, with some exceptional regions, but mainly maintained in the Mediterranean area.

Figure 1. Silvopasture percentage in Europe according to the LUCAS database for the years 2006, 209, 2012, 2015 and 2018.

Hence, despite being poorly represented in Europe, silvopasture appears as a must for promoting pasture production in a Mediterranean climate change context. Consequently, silvopasture reaches a significant presence, of up to 37% of the land in some Mediterranean regions, such as Extremadura, La Rioja, Baleares, and Andalusia in Spain, Sardegna, and Basilicata in Italy, as well as Portugal and Greece (Figure 2). The presence of woody perennials in most of the Mediterranean area of Europe can be related to the fact that deep-rooted species are needed to overcome the long and dry summers faced by Mediterranean plants while providing feed to animals in silvopasture systems.

Figure 2. Percentage of land occupied by silvopasture in the Mediterranean area of Europe.

This silvopasture high share and maintenance over time has found to be related to the guidelines set by the CAP Pillar II Rural Development Programmes (RDP) measures linked to agroforestry (Rodriguez-Rigueiro et al., 2021). According to this, most Mediterranean regions promote silvopasture but especially Sicilia and Umbria in Italy, Madrid and Extremadura and Andalusia in Spain, and Portugal (Figure 3).

This is linked to the need to keep traditional local systems highly profitable and environmentally remarkable in order to promote climate change adaptation, such as, for example, the oaks-based Dehesa/Montado systems or permanent crops such as olive orchards. On the other hand, regions with a lower share of silvopasture focussed RDP measures on forest fire prevention.

Figure 3. Number of RDP measures promoting silvopasture in agricultural and agricultural and forest lands.

But there is another element key for silvopastoral systems, including wildfire prevention and land management from a circular economy perspective: the livestock. There are various animals that could graze in silvopastoral systems. As part of the statistical description of the current situation in Europe, carried out as part of the GO-GRASS project, an analysis on the number of heads for different livestock species was performed. Thus, bovines, horses, sheep and goats were acknowledged as potential species within silvopastoral systems for grazing, in addition to the pigs that populate dehesa areas.

As a result of this analysis, livestock presence is clearly specialised to different European areas with big animals like horses and bovines more associated to northern and central countries and small animals mostly living in the South part of Europe.

Therefore, silvopastoral systems are clearly a necessary tool to reduce feed supply dependance in the Mediterranean area of Europe, especially during the summer-drought periods when small animals could graze woody perennials such as shrubs, but also in mountain areas where herbaceous vegetation is sparse and climate conditions are often adverse during all seasons. Finally, silvopastoral systems could promote business opportunities in rural areas, incrementing farms’ profitability and stability as the circular economy enables reducing costs and dependance on feed suppliers.

Full reference

Rodriguez-Rigueiro, F.J., Santiago-Freijanes, J.J., Mosquera-Losada, M.R., Castro, M., Silva-Losada, P., Pisanelli, A., Pantera, A., Rigueiro-Rodriguez, A., Ferreiro-Dominguez, N., 2021. Silvopasture policy promotion in European Mediterranean areas. PLoS One 16.