The Role of Food Forests in Feeding Our World
By nature, forests are lush, green areas full of life and rich biodiversity. Trees, plants, animals and other organisms thrive together in a way unlike any other ecosystem. One of the best things about forests is that they can exist independently, without the need for human interference.
People don’t need to mow forests. They don’t need to weed, spray or dig anything. Instead, forests grow naturally and have built up a tolerance to pests and insects.
Right now, only about 30% of the world is covered in forests. Forests take in a lot of the carbon dioxide that humans give off, making them an essential part of the world’s ecosystems, but every day, forests are torn down for materials and to clear land to build housing developments.
Although some people relied on forests for their food in the past, this is not so much the case today. Now, many rely on fields and industrial agriculture for their food. However, forests — specifically food forests — are making their way into the world’s food system. The role of food forests for feeding our world is on the rise.
Imagine a forest, and then imagine what it might look like if nearly everything in that forest is edible. That’s a food forest.
Food forests often encompass fruit trees, berry bushes and many other plants that grow food to feed a population. A food forest doesn’t have to meet a required size or height minimum. Instead, they are an integrated community of plants with many vertical and horizontal layers of roots, plants and trees that offer edible products for people to consume.
Typically, there are multiple layers to a food forest. At the top would be fruit and nut trees, like apple, chestnut, almond and pear. The next layer would be dwarf fruit trees, such as peach. Between those smaller trees could be things like blueberry and blackberry bushes. Then there are the herbs, companion plants and plants that offer pollen for bees. The rest of the space would be covered by ground and root plants, like potato and carrot.
While many natural tree forests are mature, food forests more resemble a younger forest ecosystem. People can plant many perennial species in closer proximity to one another and yield food more sustainably in a confined space.
Food forests are different from orchards. Orchards do provide a lot of food, but they’re typically made up of the same kind of tree. Plus, these trees are planted in neat rows and often need care. Food forests, on the other hand, can sustain themselves.
Why would a food forest be better for feeding the world? Currently, the world’s population is set to grow exponentially. By the year 2050, statisticians estimate that the world’s population will reach 10 billion people. Even though the current agricultural industry can feed that many people, much of that food goes to waste or doesn’t reach parts of the world where there are food deserts, like parts of Africa and the Middle East.
The first step to creating food forests is to restore farmland and other overgrown lands or depleted regions to bring people above the poverty line. One project in China restored over 3.5 million acres of land and lifted millions of people above the poverty line. By restoring land, food forests can begin to grow.
Although fields produce a lot of food, their soil often becomes depleted after many years of use and can no longer support the same crop year after year. They also aren’t sustainable, unless regenerative and ecofriendly practices are put in place. Additionally, plowing disrupts the land, leading to erosion. Fertilizers and pesticides gather and produce runoff, which leads to water pollution.
Forests are naturally occurring ecosystems. Because of this, they can thrive on their own and, therefore, feed the world.
Unlike fields, forests can have a higher density. They’ll ensure higher yields, mainly because there are so many complex layers in a food forest. Instead of hundreds of rows of plants all growing at one level, you would have a smaller area packed with just as much, if not more, food than a 100-acre farm.
Additionally, food forests offer more biodiversity. This keeps the soils healthy and provides the forest with its own decomposers and fertilizers. Food forests are self-mulching, with fallen leaves and fruits, and the plants cover or shade the soil, which retain moisture and improves water conservation.
Another great advantage of a food forest is that there are no chemicals needed. They have natural food predators. This also means they are incredibly resilient. Food forests mix different types of plants to grow better together. Overall, food forests are less work, more natural and can provide a wealth of food for the growing population.
Already, communities have seen an improvement in food security and food quality because of community food forests. People around the world can benefit from these rich ecosystems that provide nutrition without much work. This will be something that people may have to rely on to survive as the population grows.