Food Forests

History of Food Forestry

Indigenous food forests date back more than 4,000 years in the tropics, where they are more commonly known and a traditional way of small-scale food production (e.g., tropical homegardens in Kerala, India or Maya forest garden in Mesoamerica). Since the 1990s, pioneers started to setup food forests in industrial contexts and other climate zones. In Great Britain in 1994, Michael Crawford set up the romantic Forest Garden Dartington (1ha). He founded the Agroforestry Research Trust as a knowledge platform that hosts the biannual Food Forest and Forest Garden Symposiums, published several books and has setup further showcase sites in South Devon, GB, including nurseries, trial and educational sites. 

Video: Forest garden Dartington, Great Britain (National Geographic 2020)

In Australia, around the same time in the 1990s, the permaculture movement led by Bill Mollison started. One of the many products when applying permaculture design principles, can be a food forest. Geoff Lawton, an early student of permaculture that studied with Mollison, specialized on food forestry. He created educational courses, video resources, consultancy services and a showcase site (Zaytuna Farm, 27ha). His first inspiration came from a community-managed food forest in Morocco (Paradise Valley, 30ha) that he had discovered prior his permaculture studies. This living ecosystem creates an edible oasis in a mountainous desert. Locals date its origin back to 2.000 years. This inspiration touched him profoundly and guided him to setup food forests in Jordan, one of the driest places on earth (Greening the Desert project). While forest garden Dartington in the UK is a highly biodiverse site with around 140 different plant species designed for self-sufficiency, this Moroccan site is focused on more efficient food production that allows easier harvest and larger quantities for market sales besides adding to self-sufficiency. 

Video: 30ha community-managed food forest, Morocco (Permaculturenews 2016)

In Brazil, around the same time as Geoff Lawton and Martin Crawford, an even more efficient yet diverse approach, also applicable for larger scale production, called syntropic farming was developed by Ernst Götsch. As a Swiss farmer, researcher on genetic biodiversity and agricultural consultant, he moved to Brazil in the 1980s and bought a farm degraded from prior pasture use in 1994 (Bahia, Brazil, 480ha). Besides cacao as the main cash crop, he produces several fruits, nuts and wood, and has further revived dried-out springs, regenerated the soil and created a micro-climate with increased precipitation. When he bought his farm, it carried the name Fugidos da Terra Seca (Dry Land Runaways) and is now called  Olhos D’Água (Tears in the Eyes) reflecting the high water availability onsite. Agenda Götsch is a project that aims at spreading awareness about his work through videos and workshops. 

Video: Syntropic farming, Brazil (Agenda Götsch 2019)

While syntropic farming includes a particular philosophy, the technique for planning and managing such sites is called successional or dynamic agroforestry. Here, the natural succession of a forest from pioneer species that would appear first on barren land to the highest strata species is imitated and fastend. Pioneer plants are used to create biomass, improve site conditions as well as plant growth. These systems are mostly focused on professional food production and could be regarded as one of the most biodiverse and regenerative forms to do so. Few publications exists on this topic. Roger Giezen published a guidebook on syntropic farming compiling a key reference (Giezen 2019).