The first quarter of 2021 will be decisive for the future of European forests. The European Commission is expected to present the New EU Forest Strategy –a non-legislative initiative– by the end of the term. The Forest Strategy is part of the packet of actions included in the EU’s Green Deal, presented in December 2019, the roadmap set to make Europe the first carbon neutral continent by 2050.
According to the European Commission, the upcoming Forest Strategy initiative “will build on its biodiversity strategy, cover the whole forest cycle and promote the many services forests provide. The strategy will aim to ensure healthy & resilient forests that contribute to biodiversity, climate goals & secure livelihoods, and that support a circular bioeconomy. It will focus on EU forest protection, restoration & sustainable management, and on world forests where not already covered.”
Furthermore, the new Forest Strategy will be a key reference for EU forests and the forest sector, and it will ensure a correct contribution to the EU’s objectives stated in the Green Deal (GD) document to become “a fair and prosperous society, with a modern resource-efficient and competitive economy” where economic growth “is decoupled from resource use”.
This is an exceptional situation for poplar plantations forests, as they offer a great opportunity to help tackle the challenges posed by climate change and can substantially contribute to the objectives of the Green Deal. Due to the versatility of poplar, that allows many industrial transformation options, its CO2 sequestration capacity, and its short rotation cycle, sustainably managed poplar plantations forests can help meet the growing market demand for wood, taking stress off natural forests.
Paradoxically, populiculture lacks a unified regulation common to all EU countries. In Italy, for example, it is regarded as agriculture whereas in France is considered forestry. These inconsistencies “bring about many difficulties on growers, producers and all the poplar value chain”, as said by ProPopulus’ former Chairman Pedro Garnica.
An overview of the poplar sector in Europe
The European Forest Institute’s study “Plantation forests in Europe: challenges and opportunities”, published in January 2019, offers a brief overview of the situation of poplar plantations in Italy: “Poplars are grown in short rotation forestry plantations, which are frequent in floodplains and agricultural areas of the Po Valley (northern Italy). Currently, these plantations cover approximately 46,000 ha distributed in about 10,000 farms, with an average area of 4.6 ha per farm. Despite their prevailing small size, poplar plantations provide valuable timber to the plywood industry as well as small wood for the paper and board industry. Poplar plantations are established with selected hybrid clones which achieve Mean Annual Increment of 17-20 m3/ha, with a maximum of about 30 m3/ha, in 10–12 years cycles. One or two-year old poplar saplings with a height of 3–6 m and without root systems are planted in ploughed, harrowed and fertilized soil at a density of 280–330 trees per ha”. As in Italy poplar cultivation is considered as agriculture they are “usually profitable for farmers” states the study pointing out that “the level of profitability depends greatly on the market price of poplar timber, which has been subject to considerable variations over the years.”
In other countries, like France and The Netherlands, despite populiculture is not considered an agricultural practice, “poplar is gaining popularity again, thanks in part to research on poplar as a wood source and its value in terms of biodiversity”, according to the recent publication “Peuplier, Environnement & Climat” by Forêt pro Bos. Also, the use of poplar in the French plywood industry has increased by 40% in the last five years and today populiculture creates 12.000 direct non-relocatable jobs and an equal number of indirect jobs in French rural areas, strengthening the economic activity at several layers, as stated by the French Counseil National du Peuplier, (an inter-professional body representing every link in the poplar sector) in a recently published booklet entitled “Le peuplier, un atout irremplaçable”. All of thishashelped the populiculture sector, policymakers, and local authorities, such as the French Ministry of Agriculture and Food, to encourage poplar reforestation.
In Spain, where poplar plantations are located mainly in the region of Castilla and Leon (65%) and in the Ebro basin (20%), the importance of poplar cultivation in the construction of a bioeconomy, its potential for generating rural employment, its environmental advantages and its efficiency in terms of sustainability were discussed at the “El Chopo” (Poplar) forest seminar, held on October 2020 in Pamplona (Navarra, Spain). Some of the attendants concluded that “these are favourable times for populiculture”, and in the words of COSE’s manager, Patricia Gómez Agrela, “we have suitable soil and climate to plant poplars. € 350M / year and 11,000 jobs, with a sustainable local industry that demands poplar wood, justify making an effort. Foresters are not mere poplar growers, they are managers of biodiversity, bioeconomy and social welfare.”
What lies ahead
According to the already cited EFI’s study “the demand for poplar wood of national origin is expected to increase in future, due to the reduction in imports and the possible novel uses of this raw material in the bioeconomy (i.e. biofuel industry). For these plantations to be sustainable it is important to follow cultural practices which minimize the impact of poplar cultivation on the environment, especially in sensitive areas for nature conservation, thus preventing strong land use conflicts and debates.”
The upcoming EU’s Forest Strategy poses a great opportunity to unify criteria on whether poplar plantations are regarded as agriculture or forestry, thus eliminating inconsistencies, making it easier for growers, and gives an impulse to populiculture as a means to help achieve the Green Deal’s goals.