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The Importance of Food Forests

As our global population increases and resources become strained, it is of the utmost importance to remember our roots and reacquaint ourselves with nature. In this blog we interviewed Max De Corte and Bastiaan Rooduijn of social cooperative Ondergrond, who have been working on food forest systems in and around Rotterdam for over 8 years, with the hopes of reconnecting people to their food sources and generating awareness around our current food production systems.

Max  started seven years ago by setting up an education program for those interested in food forests and permaculture, Bastiaan joined in over two years ago, after his study Biology. Their goals are, among others, to produce enough food to sell, with the money going back to the food forest and volunteers. 

They also want to tell a story on how to change agriculture and food production. The food forest creates awareness and opportunity for research and development. 

We asked how they came up with the name and this was their answer:

Max:I don’t have a traditional background. I never received a degree. When people would ask me what my background was I would say I don’t have a background, I have an ‘underground’.
Bastiaan: It also is a metaphor for the soil which feeds the system; we need the right kind of soil to create a flourishing society. 

What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is one of the oldest forms of agriculture. In this perennial land use, complementary food species are grown next to each other to generate positive ecological services as well as to provide a wide array of nutrients to be used for food, fuel, medicine, and more. 

Food forests are typically comprised of seven distinct layers: canopy, subcanopy t, shrubs, herbacious, rhizosphere, soil surface, and a vertical layer. In this method, plants grow in a highly space-effective pattern both vertically and horizontally, above and below ground. 

I asked Max and Bastiaan to define a food forest in their own words, and here is what they had to say. 

Max: A man-made designed system mimicking how a natural forest works using as many plants as possible that are either edible, medicinal, or for building materials, creating ecosystems that take care of themselves as much as possible and at the same time producing an abundance of food– that’s the short version

Bastiaan: It’s a self-reliant system on which we rely also. Natural ecosystems you don’t have to do anything for; in a food forest you do as little as possible and in return get all these products, including happiness. 

What are the benefits of incorporating food forests into our modern day society, why a forest design, and who benefits?

Max: [Food forests] may solve all the problems that modern-day society is coming across now. [They] solve biodiversity problems, soil problems, the lack of nutrients in food, and at the same time we’re just getting started so more research needs to be done. It’s looking promising and needs to be explored because our current food production system isn’t working. They’re placed in cities to help with problems of climate change, making a city more resilient, and can help close the gap between people and their environment. 

Bastiaan: Right now, many people don’t have a clue about the world around them and how their actions affect this. If they realize how food is being produced and how it can be produced, this can be a good starting point in transitioning society. A lot of research has been done on the benefits of parks, forests, and green areas in or nearby cities– this is very similar. In fact it helps even more because people become happy and think “I didn’t know I could grow something this tasty”. 

Max: One of the problems with conventional agriculture is that it removes us from nature and disconnects us from our environment. Food forests fix this and make that connection again, and show that nature is there for us.

Barriers to establishing food forests

Bastiaan: The number one barrier is complexity and knowledge. There are many species you need to work with to create a system that mimics a natural forest. 

Max: There also needs to be a paradigm shift of how we experience the world. A food forest is much different than crops or the common garden. Food forests involve more observing and letting the system do the work, so it’s a different mindset. Many people struggle with this because they are used to certain patterns. 

Bastiaan: [In addition] lots of time and money needs to be invested in the first few years before you start reaping benefits. This is also good because you’re creating a long term system, it just takes time to get started. It can be done though. Now is a really good time to start.

What negative effects could creating a food forest have on the natural ecosystems where it is established?

Bastiaan: The fear that exotic species will become invasive and ban out native species. This fear is not being viewed rationally though. If you look at our current food being grown, they’re all exotic species. Gardens and parks and green landscapes are full of exotic species and no one is worried about it. 

Max: We’ve destroyed all the natural ecosystems in Europe already, so it’s strange how we’re perceiving and trying to protect certain ecosystems when we’ve already destroyed so much and created unnatural systems.

Why are they important?

A food forest can be valuable economically, socially, and environmentally. Nutrients are exchanged, and pollination and biodiversity are increased. They also promote a sense of community, increase awareness, and enhance accessibility to those involved.

How can I get involved in Voedselbos Overtuin?

Max and Bastiaan want people to know that all are welcome and there is something to do here for everyone. There is a research agenda, harvesting and processing the harvests, an education program, general maintenance, and more! You can find their contact information below. 

To close our interview, we asked them what quality of a tree they identify with most.

Max: Longevity. I hope all the work I do lives on longer than me, just like trees. 

Bastiaan: A tree is never alone. Even a solitary tree is always cooperating with other species and organisms and due to this cooperation everyone wins. 

Contact Bastiaan for more information about Voedselbos Overtuin:

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