Forests for food: ecosystem management for a brighter future

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the blame for the disaster that followed rightly went to neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and the structural racism that allowed known problems to linger until they brought devastation on the low-lying minority communities of that city. Most of that death and destruction could have been prevented, had those with the power to do so cared more about human life than about money.

The region’s “natural” infrastructure got a bit less focus. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps once lined far more of the Gulf Coast than they do today. Industrial and commercial activity have both steadily cut away at those ecosystems, carving channels for ships and poisoning the water with oil and gas wells. The result was that the natural breakwaters that used to protect low-lying populations like New Orleans are mostly gone, so when a storm surge rises, there’s no tangle of vegetation to slow its momentum and reduce its power to overwhelm the human structures farther inland.

In our careless destruction of the ecosystems around us, we are also robbing ourselves of the benefits we derive from so-called “ecosystem services“.

Other such services include things like the oxygen generated through photosynthesis, the food we take from wild populations, the pollination provided by bees and other insects, the parasites eaten by insectivores, the water cleaned by wetlands, and so on.

It’s pretty common for people to take these services for granted. They’ve always been there, and it can be easy to feel like they always will be.

These days, however, it’s increasingly obvious that not only are we losing them at an alarming rate, for some, like natural protections against storm surges, they’re effectively almost gone.

If we want humanity to survive, we are faced with either attempting to replace these services with human constructs, or with cultivating and protecting them, restoring at least some of what has been lost, and living in a manner that encourages those ecosystems to thrive.

This is no small task, as we’ve done a lot of damage and the rapid warming of our planet will do still more in the coming years. It may well end up costing us as much as the technological and societal changes -like ending fossil fuel use- that are already at the centre of environmental discourse.

Now that we are effectively a force of nature on the surface of this planet, our survival depends on planning for the deep future. I think this is one reason the concept of a food forest has appealed to me since I first encountered it.

Food forests are basically what they sound like. A planned and cultivated forest ecosystem filled with plants that produce food for human consumption. Nut, fruit, and sugar trees for the upper stories, berries and things like grape vines lower down, and various edible greens, roots, and mushrooms at ground level.

Done right, such an ecosystem requires little labour to maintain, and where conventional farming often depletes the soil, leaving the land less productive for future generations, a food forest can potentially feed people for centuries or more without the need for massive use of fertilizers or pesticides.

I want to be clear – this is a trade-off. I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field. Machine-based harvesting wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as efficiently. This is not a form of agriculture designed to produce vast amounts of a single crop like wheat, corn, or soy.

I think the ideal arrangement would be a mix of unmanaged wilderness, conventional farmland, and various kinds of food forest. The concept also isn’t limited to a conventional “forest” – similar planned ecosystems are possible in a wide variety of conditions,  and may not always include things like larger trees. While food is a central part of such an ecosystem, it’s multi-purpose.  It provides habitat for wildlife, a communal place for recreation, a tool for public education, and the cultivation and maintenance of ecosystem services.

This is not a new concept. Not even close.

When I say a well-managed food forest can feed people for centuries, that’s because such forests have already done so. Perhaps the most famous example is an ancient forest in Morocco, but in reality this form of agriculture has been found in all sorts of places. European cultures, as part of their obsession with the imagined superiority of their “race”, dismissed the possibility that Native American cultures, for example, pursued their own forms of agriculture and land management, simply because they didn’t conform to how the colonists thought such activities “should” look.

What this really comes down to is this: our current global society operates largely on the assumption that humans are somehow separate from the rest of life on this planet – that because we are different in how we interact with our surroundings, we do not depend on the ecosystems we inhabit. I’ll delve more into ecosystem services and things like food forests in the future, but with the alarm about declining wild bee populations alone, I think it has become abundantly clear that that perceived separation was always as much of a lie as the white supremacist dismissal of these forms of ecosystem management.

As indicated by some of the sources I have linked, work has long been underway to both raise awareness of these practices and to expand existing food forest projects – both new, and very, very old. In ecology, diversity tends to mean strength and resilience. I think that’s a guideline we would do well to follow if we want humanity to have a future worth living in.

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  1. Dunc says

    I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field.

    Not necessarily. Monocultures are not always as productive as people think, and complex polycultures can be surprisingly productive. Then there’s the fact that we’ve spent a few thousand generations breeding annual grain crops for maximum productivity, but not put anything like the same development effort into perennial or arboreal crops. Even so, a stand of mature oak can rival a corn field for total yield in a good mast year. (IIRC, I haven’t looked at this in detail in years). They’re much less amenable to mechanised harvesting though…

    It’s important to remember that our agricultural systems are largely shaped by historical and cultural contingencies, and that we haven’t come anywhere near to fully exploring all of the available options. We need to be very careful when comparing the results of familiar, highly developed agricultures to some of the more speculative alternatives, simply because those alternatives aren’t as well-developed. We’ve seen massive improvements to grain agriculture in the last century – who’s to say that we couldn’t achieve similar improvements to different agricultural systems if we put the effort in? Who knows what the next Norman Borlaug might manage?

  2. says

    My wife brought up the same point, and you’re both right on the face of it.

    The reason I put it that way is that it seems to require a lot more human labour to get those calories, compared to the amount that can be farmed in a monoculture by a small number of people with machines, at least when it comes to things like grains.

  3. klatu says

    How do you pollinate industrial crops without natural pollinators?
    You don’t, actually.

    There is no solution.

    Terrestrial soils are expected to provide us approximately another 60 years of high-yield modern agriculture before they’re basicaly spent (for a VERY long time). And then what?

    There is no solution.

    Let’s add another 5 billion people to this planet. This is where we’re headed: 12 billion or so people, most of whom will be starving from the moment they are born. We are unlikely to grow beyond that number for this very reason. Even talking about population control is a taboo in most countries, for stupid racist reasons.

    There is no solution.

    You do present some interesting/admirable ideas. And I WISH they were actually possible. But we’re living under a capitalist hegemony. And that’s unlikely to change before Climate murders us all. I wish Marxism was our go-to response, but is isn’t. Whenever people feel even slightly slighted, they tend to become fucking fascists.

    I fear that, barring violent revolution, our species is going to go extinct in the next few hundred years. Forget Corona. There will dozens of concurrent pandemics if we keep treating our animals entirey ecosystem like so much garbage. And that’s before Climate decides it’s had enough (I am talking, as always, about a time past 2100. Even at 1.5°C at 2100, we’re fucked in the long term. Can we at least stop pretending that everything will be fine as long as we’re only partly boiling alive?).

    The first step towards a sustainable future would be to convince economists that growth is actually a bad thing. The dogma is deeply engrained. Every fucking economics text book in the world teaches the same gospel: Growth is sacred and wonderful and won’t ever be a problem! So… Good look with that!

    (Germany (where I live) currently faces a really dumb (and never talked about) problem: We have a lot of trees. So many trees. And Climate should be happy about that. But it isn’t.
    Because all we have are coniferous monocultures. The reason? Same as always. Industry. Capitalism, yadda, yadda, yadda. Turns out monocultures are not only really REALLY vulnerable to parasites and other environmental problems, but they also tend to not even be beneficial on paper: Coniferous trees release a bunch of aerosols and don’t have reflective foliage. So they both don’t absorb heat and instead release heat-trapping chemicals en masse. Wonderful.
    But there are no plans to replace these forests with anything resembling natural forests, because what about the poor, poor industry? Shit… I guess there simply is no I-want-this-planet-to-live lobby.)

    With those cheery thoughts out of the way: Welcome back! I’ve been missing your posts and I hope you’re healthy and happy.

  4. says

    I would say rather that there is no solution without a radical systemic change in how we operate.
    There is no solution that allows the rich and powerful to keep their wealth and power.

    The problem is that we’ll have to manage the global ecosystem to maintain ourselves and to rebuild biodiversity as part of our response to climate change. I also think, as I’ve mentioned before, that we would do well to cultivate food sources like algae and bacterial cultures that can be maintained in relative isolation from the general ecological chaos.

    There is no solution that leaves life looking familiar, but I think that’s a good thing.

    In the meantime, start worming with your neighbours to build local resilience and networks, because I think that’s the only way we can build the collective power to force the needed changes.

    It helps to have work to do, even if that work may not fully bear fruit in your lifetime.

  5. says

    This comment from an ecologist got lost in wordpress nonsense, and it’s far too useful not to post:

    This is a concept that can extend to other kinds of ecosystems that can produce food in a natural or semi-natural state. The grasslands of central North America which I am most familiar with are a good example of an ecosystem that can sustainably produce food (cows in this case) with very low inputs. One of the biggest values of such a system is resiliency to poor conditions. A native perennial grassland will maintain production better under drought conditions than a cropping system. The problem in all of these cases from a productivity perspective is that an annual plant (wheat, corn, Canola etc.) puts almost all of it’s gains from photosynthesis into seed production. A tree or perennial grass puts a large amount of energy into structures needed for the long-term survival of the plant (roots, stems etc.), so almost always has less energy for seed production.

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