Food Forests: A Sustainable Alternative to Industrial Agriculture

Eva Pontius


Many of us go to the grocery store and pick our produce from the shelves without thinking too much about where it came from, how it was grown, or how it got there. But, maybe we should pay more attention to how we are getting our food because food production has a significant impact on our environment. The food that ends up on grocery shelves is grown on massive industrial farms. Imagine endless rows of the same plant, dust blowing in the wind from heavily tilled soil, thirsty plants fed by sprinkler systems that suck up precious aquifer supply, chemical fertilizers and pesticides sprayed over the ground in an attempt to replenish the depleted soil and replace the role of natural predators, and little to no biodiversity.  

The Problem with Industrial Agriculture

Biodiversity is important because a healthy ecosystem relies on a variety of species to provide food, attract pollinators, control pests, decompose waste, build the soil, and reduce the spread of disease. Industrial agriculture is the main culprit of biodiversity loss due to mass deforestation. The agriculture industry also pollutes bodies of water with manure and chemicals from fertilizer. There is such an excess of manure produced from industrial animal agriculture that farmers are forced to spread it onto crop fields in larger concentrations than the ground can naturally absorb. Farmers also struggle with storing manure. Areas the size of a football field become manure lagoons and contain antibiotics residue, dangerous fecal bacteria, and chemicals. Excess manure and fertilizer are carried by runoff into bodies of water causing eutrophication, the excess growth of algae blooms, which harms aquatic life, and thus terrestrial life that relies on them. In addition, the use of pesticides can have harmful effects on animal and human health including endocrine and neurological disorders and cancer. They have also had devastating effects on pollinator populations.  

Industrial agriculture exacerbates global warming by emitting greenhouse gasses through fertilizer, manure, and transportation. Nitrogen from the excessive application of nitrogen-based fertilizer in industrial agriculture fields often makes its way into the atmosphere and becomes nitrous-oxide, which is a greenhouse gas. Global warming is a result of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, and is a serious threat to humans and the environment. Global warming is expected to intensify droughts and heatwaves, making already precious aquifer water supplies even more precarious. Farmers will face struggles to continue producing crops as climate change worsens if the ubiquitous method of growing food doesn’t change. It is evident that our current method of getting food from seeds to shelves is not sustainable, however there is an alternative method of producing food that has potential to solve these issues.

Food Forests

Food forests have the potential to ameliorate a multitude of issues: they can provide food, store carbon, reduce water pollution, improve air quality, create habitats, increase biodiversity, and build community bonds.  A food forest is a landscape designed by following permaculture principles that functions as a natural forest ecosystem with multiple layers. These layers consist of a variety of tall trees, short trees, shrubs, vines, perennial vegetables, herbs, flowers, and mulch plants. Trees in a food forest may consist of pawpaw, dwarf chestnut, apple, pear, fig, and persimmon.  Bushes of blueberries, raspberries, elderberry, and currents fill in the space between trees.  Climbing up walls and fences may be grape and hardy kiwi vines. In the gaps grow perennial vegetables such as sunchoke, rhubarb, lovage, and kale as well as perennial herbs, flowers, and living mulch plants comfrey.   

The use of perennial plants in a food forest allows for very little maintenance.  There is no need to till or use fertilizer when you include nitrogen fixing plants in a forest garden.  These plants take in atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into nitrate, which is stored in their leaves and fertilizes the soil when they drop. Nitrogen fixing plants include plants in the bean, rose, and oleaster families. Dynamic accumulator species like comfrey and dandelion have a long taproot to draw up nutrients from deep in the soil into their leaves. When these plants drop their leaves, the nutrients contained in them go back into the soil to be taken up by other plants.  Meanwhile worms and other decomposers aerate the soil and leave nutrient rich castings. Ground cover plants form a living mulch that keeps the soil in place and suppresses weeds. Food forests remove the need to till, mulch, weed, rotate crops, and apply fertilizer and pesticides, making them very practical.

A variety of flowering plant species in a food forest attracts a diversity of pollinators and predatory insects that keep pests at bay, minimizing the need for pesticides. If pest issues persist in a food forest, natural organic pest repellants can be used. In addition to creating a rich biodiverse ecosystem, food forests take up carbon from the atmosphere and store it within the soil, helping to reduce the effects of climate change.


Food forests are promising as a sustainable alternative to traditional industrial agriculture that offer numerous benefits to the environment, humans, and animals. The environmental benefits of food forests include carbon uptake, runoff reduction, and cleaner air and water.  The absence of nitrogen-based fertilizers and pesticides in food forests means the food is healthier for humans and animals, and allows for biodiversity to flourish.  Biodiversity is extremely valuable in an ecosystem because all species are interdependent amongst each other.  For example, without pollinators fruit trees wouldn’t be able to produce fruit, and without decomposers the soil would lack nutrients necessary for the growth of plants.  Finally, food forests are practical and manageable, they can provide fresh, local, organic produce with little maintenance.

Sources: Agroforestry Research Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, Permaculture Research Institute, Whitefield Permaculture