Opinion: The future of food is forests


The Urban Food Forest in Atlanta is the largest of its kind in the US. It provides fresh, environmentally friendly food to the community. (Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill)

Lizzy Camp, Staff Writer

Sitting in the middle of World History in 9th grade, the concept of agriculture was introduced as the holy grail of humanity, the best thing we had invented, until of course, we invented sliced bread. 12,000 years ago, our ancestors in the Fertile Crescent began the practice of agriculture, which is now intertwined with our culture in a huge way. Humans stopped thinking about nature as something to live in harmony with, but instead something to tame and exploit. This practice has been used for centuries, and it has been great, until now. 

A recent road trip across the Midwest was a thrilling view of cornfield after cornfield. Plants were being sprayed with pesticides and produced in mass amounts. This is not terrible. We have a lot of people on this Earth, and everyone needs to eat. Farms are great. They provide a huge amount of money for the economy and are entire livelihoods. Farming and agriculture can be sustainable and good for the environment. However, the way we farm now is not the way to do it.

The food that you eat for dinner tonight has most likely traveled hundreds and thousands of miles. Your meal probably travelled around 1,500 miles to get there. This is a fundamental problem with modern farming. Growing food in mass amounts and sending them all over the country leads to problems like food waste and pollution. Food that isn’t bought at grocery stores is sometimes donated to food banks, but around 40% of food is thrown out. Long distance agriculture also leads to a rise in fossil fuels and an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. It is also a matter of speed; food needs to stay fresh during travel before it reaches the store. This leads to scientists experimenting with genetically modified foods to reduce perishable food. 

Enter permaculture. Simply defined, permaculture is similar to agriculture, the end goal is to produce food. However, permaculture focuses on balancing the land and the needs of the people. Working with nature, instead of above it. If you leave nature alone, it will manage itself. The delicate balance between pollinators, prey, and predators makes sure that not one part of the ecosystem grows too much. Permaculture lets nature do its thing, instead of interfering with it. 

Permaculture relies on closed loop systems, thus becoming sustainable. For example, fertilizer could come from livestock you are raising, the food you grow can feed your livestock, which gives you more fertilizer, and so on. Permaculture is based on the idea that nature can do the work for you. Planting mashua, a type of vine, under locust trees is an example of letting nature do the work. The locust trees will release nitrogen into the soil, fertilizing the mashua, and the mashua will grow on the tree. By letting these plants work together, nature eliminates the need for fertilizer, for building a trellis, and also attracts pollinators. 

These “layers” of vegetation are one of the key parts of food forests, one of the best examples of permaculture. Food forests are a land system where trees, shrubs, and crops are interspersed. This creates a multi-story ecosystem that mimics a natural forest, but incorporates plants for human consumption. Food forests require far less maintenance and are pollinator friendly. 

90% of the native grasslands in America have been turned into plots for agriculture (Netflix)

Food forests are the future. They are usually built in urban areas, which limits food travel by thousands of miles. Food forests also improve food security. Of the few food forests that are in the US, they give cheap, fresh food with easy access to the community. They combat climate change, by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and minimizing carbon dioxide emissions released by traveling food. By having forests and greenery in urban environments, we also minimize the urban heat island effect, keeping our cities cooler and healthier. 

Food forests also give wild lands a fighting chance. In the American Midwest, 90% of the prairie has been lost to agriculture. The food we eat produces 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and over one-third of these are caused by conversion of wild lands to farm lands. The American bison was almost driven extinct by this conversion, and although the population has grown in recent years, they have less room to roam and live on our grasslands. Food forests would combat the enormous amount of space we have created for agriculture by localizing where our food comes from. 

So how do we create a food forest? Food forests thrive off of layers, which are the key to creating closed loop cycles. There are seven layers: the canopy, which contains large fruit and nut trees, the lower tree layer, with smaller fruit trees, shrubs with currants and berries, and a herbaceous layer, where herbs grow. Next comes the rhizosphere, where root vegetables are grown, the soil surface for ground cover, and finally the vertical layer, where vines and climbers grow. 

A few cities have created successful food forests. The Beacon Food Forest in Seattle was the first food forest in the US, and has so far been an incredible success. Other food forests have started across the country, including the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill in Atlanta, and Swale, a floating food forest based in New York City. 

These few food forests are an example of what the future of agriculture could look like. A future where we work with nature, instead of against it. We need to reimagine how we grow and distribute food, if we are to save our climate. We are not going to stop climate change by changing our agriculture system, but we can definitely make a difference, and start to fix the problems we have caused.