We’ve all heard the hype that modern agriculture is the solution for our deeply flawed food system. However, many believe that transgenic seeds don’t adequately address the fundamental issues that destabilize farmers and contribute to food insecurity. While a world full of food forests sounds like the ideal rather than an applicable solution, evidence suggests that we must adapt more ecologically diverse farms or risk losing an even larger number of people to food insecurity.
How would the health of our watersheds and communities change if we swapped pesticides and monocultures for companion planting and habitat-building ecosystems?
Imagine a forest- a lush, thriving, living forest. It’s so alive and so productive you can almost feel it breathe. What creatures call it home, and what grows there? Now, imagine that this forest is filled with food. This food forest grows what you need. It is framed by tall trees that yield nuts and provide shade, smaller trees that bear fruit, and shrubs that fill the understory. Weaving through the orchard are the vegetables and grains you cook with and feed to your backyard chickens. The spaces between nurture herbs, edible flowers, and species that protect and enrich the soil and even provide natural medicine. This food forest is like any other forest— a rich, diverse, thriving ecosystem; a resilient habitat in which each species gives more than it takes. Yet there is a fundamental difference: a food forest sustains itself and provides for others.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” In fact, there are 842 million people worldwide who experience chronic hunger, despite the lack of famine. Put another way, the earth actually produces enough food to feed everyone, but a myriad of social, economical, and geographical forces prevent a fairer distribution. Paradoxically, the majority of the food insecure (70%) live in rural, agricultural areas in developing countries. However, even our own seemingly wealthy and urban Orange County experiences dramatic food insecurity, impacting an astonishing 400,000 people daily: 13% of adults and 24% of all children.
In 2014 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released a report timed to their International Year of Family Farming. In it, they outlined our generation’s challenge: family farms (over 500 million worldwide) produce over 80% of the planet’s food, yet have the least access to vital resources. The FAO argues urges stakeholders to work with these small farmers and avoid reliance upon high-input, external resources. Often run by women and worked with ancient technologies, small family farms are not an obstacle to reaching global food security, but the solution. It’s up to us to include the rest.
A fifth of the world’s food supply comes from farms that are polycultures (meaning they grow more than one species), providing everything from food to firewood to animal fodder. Farmers who plant many varieties tend to use seeds that are more genetically heterogeneous, and better equipped to withstand stress from pests, diseases, and other environmental factors, including extreme weather brought on by climate change. Methods such as intercropping, cover cropping, crop rotation, natural soil building, and the use of shade cover further mitigate the effects of adverse weather and create higher yields. Such practices are the clear alternative to the high-input, resource-taxing, modern monoculture system. Instead of relying upon chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and altered seed, these farmers employ natural, time-tested methods, which mimic those found in a natural ecosystem. And for good reason: when plant diversity increases, productivity increases.
Think back to our food forest example: a true polyculture. This system of ecological gardening is not limited to those making a living from the land. Homeowners and schools can do the same. What would our food system look like if our neighborhoods’ under-utilized lawns became food forests? How would the health of our watersheds and communities change if we swapped pesticides and monocultures for companion planting and habitat-building ecosystems? Together, these practices make natural communities that are more diverse, more resilient, and more productive.
We stand at a unique crossroads in the history of agriculture: the world population is expected to grow to 9.6 billion people by 2050. As the human diet evolves, as the population grows and the planet’s temperature warms, it is essential that we embrace both modern technology and time-tested methods to provide what we—and our planet—need. Everyone from policy makers, research and non-profit organizations, and consumers is equipped to help farmers, homeowners, and communities make this transition. Can every farm be a polyculture? Can every homeowner’s lawn become a food forest? Yes, absolutely. The knowledge is available, and the model is proven.
The future is abundant.
How can you be a part of the solution?
Support your local growers like South Coast Farms, the last organic farm in Orange County.
Learn to grow your own food
Become trained in sustainable design