Eva de Groot wrote an essay about food forests and how this phenomenon is gaining momentum in the Dutch agriculture. In this blog she shares some of her findings.
First things first; what are food forests? Food forests imitate natural ecosystems by combining trees, crops and livestock that work together. In a monoculture only one layer is used for the production of food; a food forest is a polyculture with many more layers, for instance with shade trees, shade-tolerant vegetation and herbs (see figure 1). Agroforests contain around 75% of the species that are found in the natural forests in that particular area. Therefore food forests are good for wildlife conservation and for the maintenance of healthy agroecological functions. Food forests can be seen as one of the many faces of permaculture.
Source: Eliades A (2011). Why food forests? http://permaculturenews.org/2011/10/21/why-food-forests/
Historically lots of food forests were settled in more tropical climates. Due to lower temperatures and less sun it is more difficult to design a productive food forest in more Northern countries. Furthermore most farmers in Western countries are used to monocultures and know little about farming in a polyculture or – even more varied – a food forest. Due to more knowledge, it is nowadays possible to create a productive food forest even in the colder climates like that of the Netherlands.
In order to see whether the number of food forests is really increasing, I used the ‘voedselbossenkaart’ (http://akkernaarbos.nl/voedselbossenkaart/), a map showing food forests in the Netherlands and Belgium. For each food forest I checked when it was established, which I show in the graph below. It is clear that the number of food forests has been rising the last decade.
For this essay I visited three different producers who own a food forest to ask them about their motivations and goals with the food forest. Interestingly, none of these producers has a background in farming. They all started a food forest because they were inspired by the concept.They have different goals they want to achieve with their food forests, however, like research, production, enhancing social contacts or education.
For many people an important question is if we can live from food forests. This question can be approached in two ways; the first one is if producers can live from the output they generate with a food forest and the second is if people can have a diet consisting of products from food forests only. According to literature and producers both are possible. Considering the question whether producers can live from the output of food forests: food forests generate a large real output per hectare because they make more use of height. Moreover, the special species most food forests cultivate can contribute to more income; chefs of restaurants are often interested in these special species and willing to pay more for it. Considering the question whether food forests can produce full diets: the most common products from a food forest are nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and sometimes meat, but one of the producers argues that everything can be grown in food forests. However, the other producers state that most people have to adjust their diets if we want to live completely of the output of food forests. A suitable diet from food forests would consist of less to no grains, meat and fish, and more fruit, nuts and vegetables.
Overall, food forests have been proven to be an upcoming and interesting phenomenon in the Netherlands. It seems possible to live from these kinds of forests, even in colder climates like that of the Netherlands. Nevertheless, still a lot has to be done to make food forests production common in the Dutch landscape of agriculture.