In the spirit of the International Day of Forests on 21 March, Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA) began the roll-out process of their brand new Food Forests Programme.
But what is a Food Forest anyway?! Well, forests are the most productive and biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems on Earth. They are also completely self-sustaining — no one maintains a natural forest yet they just keep growing! Furthermore, every forest has at least seven distinct layers of plants, namely: overstory canopy trees, understory trees, climbers, shrubs, herbs, ground-covers, and root layers. Some forests even have an eighth layer of mid-story trees. Associated with each of these layers or strata is a whole range of animal life. Thus, in simple terms, a Food Forest is a forest in which every layer or niche is occupied by something edible or useful to us in some way.
Other than this, a major difference between natural forests and Food Forests is that there is a critical and inherent aspect of design. While we seek to emulate natural forests as closely as possible in terms of ecosystem processes, we select the specific tree / shrub / herb species and varieties and also carefully design their placements and layouts. This design aspect is crucial since we are often creating ‘artificial’ guilds or communities of plants (or groups which do not readily occur in nature) and we need to ensure that the interactions are as systemic as possible. The whole-system design approach to Food Forest implementation safeguards the forest against numerous potentially unforeseen negative impacts, like natural disasters, and ensures that required inputs remain as low as possible while outputs consistently increase.
An unusual — in terms of forests — but necessary input for Food Forests is maintenance. This requirement seems to contradict the definition of a forest. However, ‘maintenance’ in this instance merely refers to conscious actions which fast-track natural forest processes. In some instances, we may prune back certain trees to allow more light penetration, or mulch the off-cuts under a tree of which we wish to accelerate the growth. Doing so results in Food Forests being just as, if not more, productive than natural forests.