Ask Eartha column: What is an edible forest?
August 26, 2016
I recently overheard a conversation on edible forests. Can you help explain what these are and the benefits of this system?
— Taylor, Dillon
Thank you for your question this week, Taylor. For starters, let's take a look at what makes up an edible forest.
Edible forests, otherwise known as food forests, are based on permaculture design and are intended to be self-sufficient by working in harmony with nature. They combine the aesthetics of a public park and the concepts of a community garden in order to create a space that offers food for the public. The main idea behind an edible forest is that all the food produced is free to take. Yes, that's right — free food! Now, of course, nothing is "free" per se, but most food forests are created through grants and partnerships with parks and recreation entities (which provide land), nonprofit groups and volunteers who handle the labor and maintenance.
You may be wondering how edible forests can possibly sustain themselves? Biodiversity — the variety of life in a particular ecosystem — allows the forest to become self-functioning. Various species of trees, shrubs, ground coverings and vines all work together to maintain healthy soil, natural irrigation flows, sun exposure and pest control. This method also limits the use of pesticides, herbicides and intensive-labor techniques that are found in industrial agriculture.
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The benefits of an edible forest can be compared to those of community gardens. The main difference being that the food is guaranteed to be free for public taking. This is not to say that edible forests are better than community gardens. Rather, edible food forests expand upon the biodiversity that community gardens bring to the environment and society. For instance, edible food forests are beneficial in urban areas where there is limited vegetation, and they can also help limit the "heat island effect" — a phenomenon that occurs when a city or metropolitan area is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities. Furthermore, edible forests address food access issues by providing greater options in regions where healthy food can be difficult to find or afford. Finally, edible forests significantly support the "Live Local, Buy Local" movement as well as educate participants on the importance of locally grown food. It is estimated that there are currently 63 food forests taking root in communities across the nation. The people who have access to these wonderful woodlands can begin to ease their minds on where their food comes from and how ethically and sustainably it is produced.
In a webinar conducted by Post Carbon Institute, Michael Bomford of the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems program of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, located in British Columbia, noted that 16 percent of energy used by the U.S. goes into feeding people. How is this possible? Well, when we think about the energy used for food production and distribution, we can't forget to include the operations and management of food processing plants, packaging, transportation, retail (grocery stores) and restaurants. Most, if not all, of these components are eliminated by cultivating food in edible forests and community gardens.
Some may argue that the presence of food forests could have a negative economic impact on the agricultural industry. But, in the long run, it would benefit the industry to adopt permaculture methods and increase the biodiversity of farm lands. Instead of solely growing monocultures of soybeans, corn and other commodity crops, the addition of greater plant variety can improve soil quality, protect against pests and disease, prevent erosion, decrease irrigation levels and minimize environmental damage. With the long-term availability of cheap fossil fuels in question, creating localized, resilient food systems is a wise course of action.
So what can you do to help support local food systems? While edible forests are a great addition to the food movement, they are not fit for every environment. Consider growing your own food in a community garden plot or experiment with greenhouses and garden at your home. At the grocery store, look for the Colorado Local products. Attend farmers markets during the summer season to obtain fresh, local food. And spread the word — the more discussion we create, the more people we can involve in bringing food production back to our communities. If you are interested in seeing an edible forest, visit communityfoodforests.com to view a map of the known forests in our country. Now, go forth and have fun exploring, learning and rooting down into supporting local food.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.