The Food Forest Alternative

A food forest is a form of regenerative farming, a designed ecosystem modelled on nature, with the aim of growing food and sequestering carbon at the same time. As a forest it will consist of plants which occupy different layers, typically a canopy layer, shrub layer, herb layer and climbers. All plants will be perennials in order for the soil to be wild, undisturbed and regenerating. All plants will be food producing, will sequester carbon in their woody parts or in the soil, and will have useful functions in the forest ecosystem.

Interest in radical alternatives such as food forests has grown in recent years due to the growing realisation that industrialised agriculture degrades the land, depletes the soil and makes a major contribution to climate change. In his groundbreaking book Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake writes:

Agriculture causes widespread environmental destruction and is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Between 20 and 40 per cent of crops are lost each year to pests and diseases, despite colossal applications of pesticide. Global agricultural yields have plateaued, despite a 700-fold increase in fertiliser use over the second half of the twentieth century. Worldwide, thirty football fields’ worth of topsoil are lost to erosion every minute.[i]

Concerns about agrochemicals which came into use after the Second World War led to the founding of the Soil Association and the organic farming alternative.[ii] However, agriculture was destroying soils – and causing climate change through deforestation – long before modern chemicals and machinery were introduced. There is an old saying: ‘civilized man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints’.[iii] In around 350 B.C. Plato wrote about soil erosion due to grain farming in the land of Attica where the Greeks had settled: ‘… the once rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man’; where abundant springs and streams used to flow from forested hills, now the rains poured from the denuded land straight into the sea.[iv]

The Coronavirus pandemic that hit the world in 2020 is a further effect of industrialised agriculture. Human ecologist Andreas Malm explains in his recent book: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century that coronavirus is an example of zoonotic spillover, where an animal disease is passed on to humans, often with an amplifier host in between.[v] Malm predicts that this process will recur because the driving force is deforestation to make way for, in particular, beef, soybean, palm oil and wood products, breaking up wildlife areas and putting the hosts of virus diseases – often bats – under pressure and stress such that they move out of their habitats in search of food. Malm cites the Marxist scientist Rob Wallace saying that ‘opening the forests to global circuits of capital’ is in itself ‘a primary cause’ of all this sickness. Malm continues ‘It is unrestrained capital accumulation that so violently shakes the tree where bats and other animals live. Out falls a drizzle of viruses’.[vi] Coronavirus may be a global pandemic but it is caused by exploitation of forests in developing countries driven by demand from developed countries, an ecologically unequal exchange which is unethical and dangerous.

The way to prevent further zoonotic spillover is to stop destroying wild forests for cattle grazing and plantations of plant food commodities like soybean and palm oil. Sourcing our food from local mixed plantings such as food forests would seem to be an ideal alternative, and yet a food forest is disturbingly like an island of diverse habitat for wildlife living in amongst the food plants, and no one planting and tending a food forest is going to insist on culling any species or order, in particular Chiroptera (bats), so might food forests make zoonotic spillover more likely? This is clearly something that needs further thought by the already impressive cohort of food forest experts.

The so-called ‘Neolithic Revolution’,[vii] the advent of agriculture, was supposedly our most decisive step towards a better life, but proved to be ‘a milestone for the worse as well as for the better’.[viii] Three plant species, wheat, rice and maize, are now the staple of three quarters of the world’s population,[ix] providing around half of all the human energy intake around the world.[x] Those three species were first domesticated thousands of years ago, but so were other important edible plants around the world such as squash, potato, lentil, soybean, banana, taro and yam.[xi] In Lewis Dartnell’s study of human evolution and physical geography, he identifies over sixty familiar food plant species which were domesticated over the course of the past few thousand years.[xii] These include legumes, brassicas, plants of the nightshade family, fruits of the rose and citrus families, and the family of palm trees, plus root and stem vegetables.[xiii] Interestingly, all the plants Dartnell mentions are included in the PFAF database, a third of them marked as being useful food forest plants, and half of those are included amongst the over six hundred listed in the species matrix in Dave Jacke’s book Edible Forest Gardens.[xiv] There is clearly potential to widen our choice of the plant foods we cultivate, and various ways to make our food growing more diverse have been devised in recent years, with food forests particularly interesting as an idea and a world saving practice.

The Food Forest Idea

By using the term ‘Food Forest’ we are combining two familiar ideas which are not normally associated with each other in the modern world into a new idea with ancient roots. ‘Food’ normally comes to us by means of complicated systems, originating in fossil fuel and chemical-based monocultures, followed by stages of transportation, processing and trade. Systematic monocultural farming, from the Neolithic period 11,000 years ago to the present, has involved clearing forests to make space for plantations of cereal crops or for grazing domesticated livestock. Since that time, forests have also been treated as if they were monocultures, remote areas for the production of timber. Most of the world’s human population is alienated from the land both in practice and in attitudes and expectations. This alienation applies even to people employed in agriculture, or in other forms of resource extraction, since their contact with the land is limited to the patches of land designated to producing particular commodities and often only while using machinery.

‘Food’ and ‘Forest’ are instances of monocultural land use in general. This is usually taken for granted and it is normal to look at any area of land as ‘for’ a particular purpose, as in the zoning maps used by planning authorities. The practice of dividing land into patches of monoculture is so pervasive that even wildlife habitat has become a type of monoculture, made up of increasingly small and isolated conservation areas, some of them dedicated to preserving ‘conservation-reliant’ creatures now pushed to the edge of survival.[xv] Land planted with trees or rewilded to draw down carbon is another kind of monoculture. Sports and recreation depend on yet another form of monocultural land use.

‘Food Forest’ is a radically different idea. In practical terms a food forest is obviously not a monoculture because it involves designing a diverse ecosystem modelled on nature, made up of a variety of perennial food-yielding plants. As an idea, the combination of food and forest suggests it might be thought of as binary cultivation, ‘duo-culture’ to coin a term. That could suggest land used for two yields: food plus timber, as in commercial agroforestry, such as ‘tree intercropping’ where rows of trees are interspersed with strips of annual crops, or ‘silvopasture’, the deliberate integration of beneficial trees on pastureland.[xvi] Even the widely-adopted term ‘agroforestry’ suggests binary cultivation, with its prefix ‘agro’ coming from ‘ager’, the Latin for field. Robert Hart, the originator of forest gardening in the UK, defined ‘agroforestry’ as ‘the generic term for systems of cultivation in which trees are combined with other crop-plants’,[xvii] and forest gardening means diverse plantings, as does homegarden, cottage garden, woodland garden and permaculture plot.

We find a form of ‘duo-culture’ in Vandana Shiva’s essay ‘Monocultures of the Mind’, where she describes how the Indian approach to agriculture relies on neighbouring forests for critical inputs, in particular soil and water conservation, fodder and organic fertiliser.[xviii] There are of course more than two yields from such a system. Indeed, as soon as one moves away from monoculture, dedicated to a single cash crop, what we see is diversity, as if with duo-culture the monoculture spell is broken. For over forty years, Shiva has worked throughout the world to defend diversity of all kinds: in farming, in ecosystems, and in culture and knowledge. In an extract from her book Oneness vs the 1%, Shiva tells us that the threat to diversity is ‘globalized, industrialized, inefficient agriculture [which] invades habitats, destroys ecosystems, and manipulates animals, plants, and other organisms with no respect for their integrity or their health’.[xix]

The food producing systems I’m calling duo-culture are inherently diverse, with many versions of the basic pattern of an area of annual crops next to a wooded area. There are many annual staples, such as rice or wheat or potatoes, each of which may have many traditional varieties.[xx] The dual pattern will also vary according to location, climate and conditions, and also scale. One version of duo-culture of interest to readers of this book is the forest (or woodland) garden in a temperate region such as the UK, where it is usual to have an area of seasonal annual crops adjacent to the forest garden, especially in its early stages, to compensate for meagre occasional yields from plants in the forest layers. With a ‘food forest’ as conceived here, the aim is to go beyond duo-culture towards a perennial polyculture supplying all our food needs, and far from being a new idea, indeed it is ancient practice.

In The Carbon Farming Solution, his ‘global toolkit of perennial crops and regenerative agriculture’, Eric Toensmeier mentions the tropical homegarden, an ancient multistrata agroforest system which dates back more than 13,000 years, and he urges us to develop such systems for temperate climates.[xxi] It is obviously challenging to design, plant and nurture a temperate food forest which will be capable of supplying all the food needs of a particular local community. There is information and advice in Toensmeier’s book and elsewhere, including in this book which is intended to assist designers by providing details of over 500 food yielding plants to select from. In the three decades since the first temperate forest gardens were planted there have been many experiments with this new way of growing, as shown in the comprehensive survey carried out by permaculture expert Tomas Remiarz.[xxii] The question is, can the current, quite encouraging level of interest in and enthusiasm for learning to ‘garden like a forest’, grow strongly enough and fast enough to be world changing?

Food Forests to Save the World

Readers of this book, which was written to help them choose plants for their food forest designs, may well be open to the idea that food forests could save the world. We live in uncertain times and the present crisis of global warming and biodiversity loss, and threats to human wellbeing and survival, is so terrible that any potential solution, however radical, should be considered, in terms of its viability, and its risks and benefits compared to other approaches. It is already evident that food forests can be part of the solution for producing food in sustainable ways. Conceivably, food forests might even give rise to a more comprehensive shift to living closer to the land in self-reliant local communities, as suggested in the following scenario.

Looking first at viability, we know food forests can be designed and planted and that they potentially have ‘very high carbon and other benefits’.[xxiii] Food forests sequester carbon from the start, since as soon as they are planted the soil is covered; there are sections in this book on herbaceous plants and shrubs suitable for ground cover. The key question is whether they can be scaled up such that they become major sources of food for the world. The best driver for such expansion would be popular support: people wanting to be involved in growing food forests and enjoying the produce. This may not yet be the case, but the precursors are many and various, and very encouraging.

People’s desire to produce their own food where they live is highly significant, given the economic pressures to consume what comes to us so conveniently via industrialised agriculture, processing, packaging and shipping across global markets to local supermarkets. The need to grow food ourselves manifests in very many ways in different parts of the world. In the UK many people grow food in their gardens and allotments, as a hobby and healthy pastime and for the taste of fresh produce. This has given rise to business opportunities, such as garden centres and online sellers supplying plants, seeds and equipment. Interestingly, there has been a rise of interest in gardening and food growing during the Covid-19 lockdowns, which we saw at PFAF from increased accesses to our database and sales of our books. In the US there have been fast-growing local food movements in recent years, but also a huge rise in small farms catering for local markets.[xxiv]

It is reported that 80 percent of the world’s food comes from small farms, only 1 percent of the world’s farms being larger than 50 hectares, but this small group controls 65 percent of the world’s agricultural land.[xxv] Small farms in India have long been part of this picture, but they are under threat, and we have seen reports of mass protests where farmers are defending their traditional methods and local markets against draconian new laws to corporatise agriculture.[xxvi] The aim of food forests as a solution would be a transition over around twenty years to a way of life with local food at the heart of it. We have two key components: considerable expertise and information on food forests, and enthusiasm for local food growing, as the starting point for the bigger scenario whereby food forests are the heart of a solution to the planetary crisis. Local food as a way of life is ancient and modern, with the tropical homegarden mentioned by Toensmeier predating the Neolithic revolution, and the food forest may date back even further to the roots of what makes us human.

It came to my attention recently that there is evidence to suggest that our species Homo sapiens, together with our extinct hominin cousins, lived and evolved while dependent on the pre-historic equivalent of food forests. It has been said that ‘[d]iet is central for understanding the evolution, adaptation, environmental exploitation, cognition, technology, and survival of prehistoric hominins’.[xxvii] We think of our ancestors as hunter-gatherers, and we know about their animal foods since tools and weapons and animal bones are durable and available for archaeological studies. Plant foods may have been even more essential as we spread across the face of the earth. Knowledge of plants and their properties, where and how they grow over the seasons, was essential for survival, and it seems possible that our brains enlarged in order to contain and process vast amounts of detailed plants information. Retaining and sharing that knowledge and passing it on to the next generation would have been at the heart of social life for most of the time humans have been in existence. The archaeological evidence for food gathering is scarce because Palaeolithic plant remains are perishable, but unusual circumstances have occasionally provided some material to enable the plant component of hominin diets to be studied. One study involved extracting microfossils from the dental calculus on Neanderthal teeth.[xxviii] Another study was focussed on a waterlogged site where there were many well-preserved macrobotanical remains, showing the wide spectrum of the diet of mid-Pleistocene hominins who obtained foods from 55 plant taxa, their diet including nuts, fruits, seeds, vegetables, and plants producing underground storage systems.[xxix]

I made a list of the plant species and groups mentioned in these papers, looked them up on the PFAF plants database and found they were all present. Of course there are many other plants to choose from in our database, all discovered and progressively selected and refined over millennia. If we extend food forests progressively over (say) the next twenty years so that more and more local communities source their food that way, in a sense we will be returning to normal, tapping in to capabilities which we developed in pre-historic times, but of course in different and challenging circumstances. The number of people needing to be fed from future food forests is far greater than ancient populations in their wild forests, so the density of food producing plants has to be far higher than might have occurred naturally, and expansion of these high yielding plantings would have to be extended as fast as possible into degraded agricultural land and other deserts. During the twenty years of transition while the forest ecosystems modelled on nature grow to maturity and spread around the world, today’s food forests experts will need to pass on their knowledge. This process is beginning, as we see from the topics presented and discussed by practitioners from around the world at the online Symposium organised by Martin Crawford, agroforestry pioneer in the UK. At this event, scheduled for June 2021, topics including how to cultivating perennial vegetables, the importance of guilds and polycultures, aspects of biodiversity, food forests and wildlife, nutrition, and urban food forests.[xxx]

A key part of transition is localisation: local food, of course, food being the primary human need. Clothing and shelter are also basic needs, and as food forests develop, we will include plants providing textiles from fibres and dyes, and materials for crafts and construction, and for many other uses which are identified on the PFAF database. We have the plants knowledge to build on, to work towards an utterly new way of life with skills rediscovered from the past. It is important to note that localising the meeting of our needs will cut carbon emissions from transportation, including cutting the need for global shipping, which is a gross and largely overlooked cause of pollution and exploitation.[xxxi]

The scenario I have set out is based on the assumption that local community food forests, expanded over twenty years, could be a total solution to the climate, ecology and social crisis facing the world. That may indeed be possible, and we hope that it will grow to be an important part of the solution, alongside actions by governments actively to fulfil pledges they have been making for decades.[xxxii] But as David Gearing explains in the next section, solutions to the climate crisis promoted and supported by governments and big business are deeply questionable and cannot be relied upon.


[i] Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Future (London: Bodley Head, 2020), pp. 159-60.

[ii] The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by a group of people who were concerned about the health implications of increasingly intensive farming systems following the Second World War. Their main concerns were loss of soil through erosion and depletion. (soilassociation.org)

[iii] Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale, Topsoil and Civilization, revised edition (University of Oklahoma Press, 1974 (1955)), p. 6.

[iv] Carter and Dale, p. 105.

[v] Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso2020)

[vi] Malm, p. 50.

[vii] The term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ was coined by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in 1935.

[viii] ‘With agriculture came not only greatly increased food production and food storage, but also the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse of human existence.’ (Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: How Our Animal Heritage Affects the Way We Live (London: Vintage, 2002 [1991]), p. 163.)

[ix] Carolyn Steel, Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World (London: Chatto & Windus, 2020), p. 53.

[x] LewisDartnell, Origins: How the Earth Made Us (London: Bodley Head, 2018), p. 67.

[xi] Dartnell, pp. 68-9.

[xii] Dartnell, pp. 63-82.

[xiii] Dartnell, pp. 81-2.

[xiv] Dave Jacke, Plant Species Matrix, in Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture, Volume 2 (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2005), pp. 459-93.

[xv] Elizabeth Kolbert, ‘Into the Wild’, in Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (London: Bodley Head, 2021), pp. 61-139 (p. 84).

[xvi] EricToensmeier, ‘Agroforestry and Perennial Crops’, in The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2016), pp. 38-49 (p. 40).

[xvii] Robert Hart, ‘The City Forest’, Permaculture News, Midsummer 1990, ed. by Graham Bell, (Totnes: Permaculture UK, 1990), pp. 11-12 (p. 11). See also Robert Hart, The Forest Garden (London: Institute for Social Inventions, 1991), p. 6.

[xviii] Vandana Shiva, ‘Monocultures of the Mind’, in Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (London: Zed, 1993), pp. 9-64 (pp. 16-17).

[xix] Vandana Shiva ‘Bill Gates’ Global Agenda and How We Can Resist His War on Life’, https://www.independentsciencenews.org/biotechnology/bill-gates-global-agenda-and-how-we-can-resist-his-war-on-life/ [accessed 12/4/21], taken from Shiva, Epilogue, in Oneness vs the 1%: Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom (London: Chelsea Green, 2020), pp. 177-81 (p. 177-8).

[xx] In India there may be as many as a hundred thousand varieties of rice, but many of these are under threat due to ‘biopiracy’, whereby certain traditional varieties are gene-sequenced, modified and patented for supposedly high yield or climate resistance and imposed on farmers. (Shiva, Oneness, pp. 22, 94-9.)

[xxi] Eric Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2016), p. 100.

[xxii] Tomas Remiarz, Forest Gardening in Practice: An Illustrated Practical Guide for Homes, Communities and Enterprises (East Meon, Hants: Permanent Publications, 2017)

[xxiii] Toensmeier, p. 100.

[xxiv] Lester Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (London: Earthscan, 2011), pp. 175-8.

[xxv] Chris Arsenault, ‘Family farms produce 80 percent of world’s food’, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-foundation-food-farming-idUSKCN01516220141016 [accessed 27/4/21]

[xxvi] Hanna Ellis-Peterson, ‘Hundreds and thousands have joined demonstrations against agricultural changes’, https://theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/12/farmers-protests-india-why-laws-caused-anger [accessed 12/4/21]

[xxvii] Yoel Melamed et al, ‘The plant component of an Acheulian diet and Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel’, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1607872113 [accessed 24/3/21]

[xxviii] Amanda G. Henry, Alison S. Brooks and Dolores R. Piperno, ‘Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1016868108 [accessed 19/8/21]

[xxix] Yoel Melamed et al, ‘The plant component of an Acheulian diet and Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel’.

[xxx] ‘International Forest Garden / Food Forest Symposium 2021: Programmme/Agenda’, https://agroforestry.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/site-files-pdf/Symposium_Programme_Public.pdf [accessed 30/4/21]

[xxxi] Rose George, Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Brings You 90% of Everything (London: Granta, 2018)

[xxxii] In his book The New Climate War, eminent atmospheric scientist and dedicated climate campaigner, Michael Mann, has a chapter ‘It’s YOUR Fault’ in which he asserts that personal actions such as reducing one’s ‘personal carbon footprint’ are deliberately promoted by fossil fuel companies to deflect attention from the need for collective action such as pricing or regulating carbon, and removing fossil fuel subsidies. Mann would presumably put growing local food and transitioning to meeting our needs locally as distractions from the real work. Such distractions, Mann insists, result in concerned people competing with each other, ‘generating conflict and promoting finger-pointing, behaviour shaming, virtue-signaling, and purity tests’: over who is more green, more vegan and so on. (Michael E. Mann, ‘It’s YOUR Fault’, in The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet (London: Scribe, 2021), pp. 63-97 (p. 63).)

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