Expert opinion

The food forest: no way!

I heard about alternatives for our current, mechanisation and cost minimisation driven agriculture recently. This type of agriculture leads to increased scaling-up and monoculture. The scope of both alternatives is that the current way of growing crops puts too much pressure on biodiversity and (literally) on the soil, eventually making it unsustainable.

At first sight, both systems are quite alike. One is called agro ecology and technology and includes agroforestry. The other one is called food forestry. The big difference between the two is that food forestry as an alternative system annoys me – the involved layman – whereas the other, agro ecology and technology, seems like a promising system.

One system involves agriculture-inclusive nature, the other nature-inclusive agriculture. I will explain them both.

Agriculture-inclusive nature: the food forest

Let me start with agriculture-inclusive nature: the food forest. To explain what this entails, I present you with some content used by 2 pioneers on their websites. Read this: ‘A food forest is a system in which ligneous species become dominant. It consists of trees that form a canopy, trees in a shady base layer, shrubs, herbs, climbing plants and ground cover. A complete pallet of species in a considered design, a polyculture instead of a monoculture.’

‘Every plant gets the best possible spot, that connects with the plant’s natural growth and what makes it feel good. Because one plants relishes the sun, the other feels better in the shade. One likes dry, the other wet circumstances. One has superficial roots, the other roots deeply in the soil.’

‘Sculpt an edible landscape’

‘By functionally combining all these aspects, you can sculpt an edible landscape. This ensures that you no longer depend on external input. Fertiliser is not used, neither is biological compost. A good, sustainable food system must be able to organise itself. We try to translate this secret of the natural forest to a system focused on food production.’

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‘A food forest is a system in which ligneous species become dominant. It consists of trees that form a canopy, trees in a shady base layer, shrubs, herbs, climbing plants and ground cover. A complete pallet of species in a considered design, a polyculture instead of a monoculture.' - Photo: AFP
‘A food forest is a system in which ligneous species become dominant. It consists of trees that form a canopy, trees in a shady base layer, shrubs, herbs, climbing plants and ground cover. A complete pallet of species in a considered design, a polyculture instead of a monoculture.' - Photo: AFP

‘Weeds play a role in soil fertility’

‘The best way to develop a forest and make it productive is to do nothing. You need to let go of the idea that keeping the soil clean, as growers and backyard gardeners tend to do, is good and that weeds are bad. Pioneers, often seen as weeds, play a role in building soil fertility and retaining the soil. They also play their part in offering shade and shelter for species that need it. There are hazelnut trees we have not seen for 2 years, because the thistles around them grew higher than they did. Hazelnuts however, prefer shade over full sunlight and wind, making the thistle foliage ideal for their growth. In later years, the hazelnut trees generously grew over the thistles. Seeing that thistles do not like shade and rest in the soil at all, they disappear by themselves.’

Ketelbroek project

‘That is the time to plant ostrich ferns, wild strawberries or other shade-dwellers. In this way, you can plan the development and amp it up bit by bit every time. It is important to note that every plant has its own history. You need to have a clear view of their development and how they will relate to each other, because it takes a lot of time before a food forest really takes shape. The 2,5 hectare Ketelbroek project has been running for 6 years now and needs that time to actually get somewhere. By now, you can see that the plants are really growing. One way or another, something happens that makes the food web and the soil settle down and that connects the fungi, making the system function as a whole.’

No input, only harvesting

So far the internet content. In short: no input, only harvesting. We used to call that over-cropping. It is all very nice, a 2,5 hectare experiment. At the moment, even a 20 hectare food forest is being developed, with support of a Dutch provincial government. We live in a free country, so really, there is nothing wrong with agriculture-inclusive nature. There is nothing wrong with the romantic idea of a food forest in which you can harvest all sorts of things after a while. I would even consider establishing it next to my house.

Thinking out of the box, okay. But this?

Then what prompts my irritation? Well, I think it is the continuing suggestion from the food forestry side that this romantic image can be an inkling of an alternative for the current food production. No way! Thinking out of the box, okay. But this?

Agro ecology and Technology Test Location

Now, for the alternative that does make me enthusiastic: agro ecology and technology. In my opinion, this is much more realistic. At the end of September, Wageningen University & Research opened the Agro ecology and Technology Test Location. This experimental ground enables multidisciplinary research into regenerative, resilient plant based production systems. On 80 hectares of polder clay, people are working to stimulate biodiversity with the specific purpose of minimising the use of pesticides and to substantially diminish the leaching of nutrients.

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The continuity of the food production and the economy are leading in this project. ‘We make use of nature inclusive/ecological principles, robotisation, sensor technology and autonomous vehicles. These systems can offer advantages for, among other things, soil resilience, climate mitigation and climate adaptation.’

With almost the same starting point as that used by the supporters of the food forest (‘We cannot go on as we have up to now’), Wageningen does something radically different than the current standard practise.

Young growers around the world will be confronted with the results of projects like that of Wageningen University, I think.

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