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Food Forests | Sustainable Agriculture, Nature’s Way

Here’s how food forests could be replacing part of our conventional agriculture to make our food production both more sustainable and future-proof.

What is a food forest?

A food forest is an agricultural system primarily designed to produce food efficiently and sustainably. At first glance, many food forests look like normal healthy forests. They are species-rich and full of life. But unlike natural forests, food forests are mainly composed of perennial edible plants including trees and shrubs with edible fruits. The plants in a food forest grow in several vegetative layers, mimicking the structure and ecological processes of a natural forest.1,2 The edible leaves, seeds, flowers, berries, fruits and nuts from food forests provide us with energy, proteins and carbohydrates.3 The rich species diversity on the other hand, feeds the surrounding ecosystems and the non-edible natural plant and animal life within - something that modern industrial agriculture often neglects.

In tropical countries, food forests have been widely used for thousands of years. As so-called 'home gardens', they have contributed to food security and are an important source of income for local populations. Since the 1970s, the interest in food forests has also been growing in more temperate climates - especially in England, where many food forests have since been established.1,3 

Throughout Europe, food forests can grow and thrive as long as we take local conditions into account.4 For example, designing a food forest in northern latitudes would require special consideration for the low availability of sunlight during winter months.Therefore, food forests in countries with lower light intensities are usually less dense as compared to food forests in tropical regions.4 

Infographic by Cait Mack

How are food forests designed?

According to Wouter van Eck, chairperson of the Dutch foundation Voedselbosbouw (Foor forestry) “[A food forest] is a design forest. It is agriculture. But it works like a natural forest.'5 Wouter van Eck is also the co-founder of the food forest 'Ketelbroek' near Nijmegen (NL). He sees food forests as a large opportunity for sustainable, future-proof agriculture.5

At first sight, food forests often appear wild. Still, the location for each plant is carefully chosen. You have to know your food forest very well to know what grows where, and which produce to harvest at different times. In larger food forests, a row structure can help to maintain a better overview and make harvesting easier for commercial growers. While a row structure makes food forests less visually reminiscent of natural forests, the structure and ecological processes are still the same.5

While food forests can appear unruly or slightly chaotic, growing a food forest requires careful planning and profound knowledge of the local conditions. The choice of suitable species and varieties highly depends on local conditions. Extreme temperatures, light conditions and water availability are important factors that need to be taken into account. Most food forests are very species-rich hosting between 100 and 200 different plant species.2

By combining different plant species with different characteristics, we can create a robust and virtually self-sustaining cultivation system. Food forests don’t need much maintenance. Apart from harvesting, they can be left alone for most of the year. Only undesired tree saplings should be removed from time to time.5 Such a system doesn’t require pesticides or fertilisers.2 

Wouter van Eck Interview: 21st January 2022.

Species and variety selection

Food forests need time to grow. During the first few years, yields are generally expected to be rather low. After this initial phase, however, they can produce a rich and varied harvest across seasons.5 Apples, pears, and berry bushes are particularly suitable in the beginning, as they result in good harvests relatively soon. Species such as hazelnut and sweet chestnut come later. They are very important too. With their high energy and fat content, these nuts are a suitable replacement for other high-calorie foods and could become a staple food.3,4 Moreover, sweet chestnuts can grow almost everywhere in Germany. Their flour is a gluten-free alternative to wheat and other cereals. It is also rich in valuable minerals, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids and fibre and its complex carbohydrates provide a long-lasting feeling of satiety.4 

The plants in a food forest are like the pieces of a puzzle. Based on their characteristics and requirements, they are combined to complement each other. Shade-tolerant plants such as currant and other berries grow in the shade of sun-loving plants.1 Nitrogen-fixing plants including alders, broom or shrub lupins are cultivated to increase soil fertility.1,3 Deep-rooting plants like coltsfoot, comfreys or sorrel improve soil porosity. They also tap mineral sources in the subsoil, bring them to the surface and make them available for other plants.1

Sweet Chestnuts thriving in Ketelbroek food forest, close to the Dutch city of Nijmegen. (Photo: Wouter van Eck, 2022)

Are food forests scalable?

Food forests are often small systems - even a tiny back garden can be large enough for a food forest.1 Many food forests are community projects or grow on the grounds of old estates and many of them are open to visitors. While these food forests are a great opportunity for people to see and experience how a food forest works, small projects are not usually about commercial food production.5 

Yet food forests are very productive, robust and relatively inexpensive to manage. They can be combined with other agricultural systems and even thrive in areas unsuitable for other farming systems due to topography, soil quality or climatic characteristics. When combined with other farming systems, food forests can increase the overall product diversity of a farm and be a valuable source of income.3

The food forest “Ketelbroek” close to the Dutch city of Nijmegen next to the German border has a size of roughly 2.5 ha. When established in 2009, it was the largest food forest in Europe.5 By now, there are also larger food forests some of which focus on commercial food production. With their projects, the Voedselbosbouw foundation wants to show that food forests are also economically viable at scale. That’s why the foundation supports farmers in gradually converting part of their agricultural land into food forests. Some of these food forests are large agricultural systems up to 20 ha in size.5 

Aerial view of Ketelbroek food forest. (Photo: Wouter van Eck, 2020)

Food forests and the environment

Today, a large part of our current diet consists of crops grown in monocultures that rely on heavy pesticide and fertiliser use for high yields. Frequent ploughing and driving on the fields with heavy machinery also increases erosion and destroys soil life and structure.6 Such agricultural systems are unsustainable and are increasingly being recognised for their vulnerability. The lack of ecological diversity paired with a reliance on human inputs means these monoculture systems are unlikely to cope with the impacts of climate change. Food forests, on the other hand, are stable, self-sustaining, diverse ecosystems. They are an important food source for pollinators and serve as a habitat for many animals and don’t require pesticides or fertilisers.2 

In food forests, the soil is hardly disturbed.4 Branches and leaves form natural mulch that over time, decomposes on the ground to form a thick layer of rich humus.2 Humus is important for soil quality and sustainable food production.1 It improves soil fertility, stores water and reduces erosion. In addition, humus stores large amounts of organic carbon and removes climate-damaging carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Therefore, healthy soils with stable humus reserves are not only important for food production, but also key for climate protection.7 On top of that, food forests are more resilient to disturbance than monocultures and can better withstand the impacts of climate change.4 

Would more food forests impact our diet?

In theory, food forests could replace a large part of conventional agriculture and make food production more sustainable. However, such a transition isn’t easy. A 'food forest diet' differs considerably from our current diet.

Food forests are not suitable for the cultivation of wheat, potatoes and other field crops. The same applies to animal products. They must be produced in other agricultural systems too. Nevertheless, food forests can supply a large part of our daily caloric needs. New creative dishes and preparation methods can help to show that a 'food forest diet' is not only good for the environment but also healthy and delicious. 

For this purpose, the food forest 'Ketelbroek' cooperates with the restaurant 'De Nieuwe Winkel' in Nijmegen. Using products from the “Ketelbroek” food forest, chef Emile van der Staak creates such extraordinary dishes as “sweet chestnut chocolate mousse” or 'sweet chestnut seitan'. In 2021, he received 2 Michelin stars: one for the quality of his food creations and one for sustainability.5 

In our northern latitudes, food forests will often not be able to cover all our calorie needs. But by changing our diet at least a little bit, we can make sure that food forests, in combination with other sustainable farming systems, become an important building block of a more sustainable future-proof food system.


Banner graphic by Sachi Mulkey.

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