The International Forest Garden Symposium

(For my email subscribers: Remember to read this on the website – better design, more information, updates included, altogether a better experience!)

No. 4 in an occasional series of articles covering agroforestry-related topics in greater depth

The First International Forest Garden Symposium (see Blog, June 1st, 2021), which ended on June 4th, was a huge success and raised many important issues, and it brought into sharp focus the significance of agroforestry/forest garden systems in the current difficult environmental situation.

The Symposium also marks the coming of age of the temperate forest garden as a discipline (and of online conferences, come to that, a fine job!). Agroforestry and forest gardens in general have been shown to be a realistic alternative for sustainable food production, ecosystem management and biodiversity (in the tropics this has been known for many thousands of years), and those who still consider it be ‘hobby farming’ would do well to think again! The coverage and scope of the event was huge, with speakers and attendees from all around the globe, and the organisers (Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, UK, and his team) are already talking about the next one, probably in early 2023.

Apart from the video sessions themselves, there were illuminating, live, Q&A sessions with the speakers after each talk, and discussion between participants in a ‘virtual bar’ at the end of each day.

From Graham Bell’s 30-year-old, 800 square metre forest garden in Scotland, to permaculture guru Geoff Lawton’s mega-projects worldwide (see below), by way of forest gardens and mental health, urban food forestry, how to set up an edible wood farm (cultivating mushrooms on logs), agroforestry systems as a post-climate disaster empowerment tool, and farm-scale food forestry, there was something for everyone. Also impressive was the Scandinavian example, highlighting several systems where astonishing results have been obtained from forest gardens at extreme northern latitudes.

Martin Crawford’s talk on Maximising carbon storage in food forests was full of practical information for forest gardeners, such as using plants for decompaction of agricultural soils, high density planting of pioneer species to boost fertility in the early stages of succession, slowing water flow on slopes through the use of swales, or just simply leaving old tree stumps in place to decompose.

Dave Jacke, another world-class speaker and co-author of the classic Edible Forest Gardens, updated his work on guilds and polycultures, and provided new thoughts on what a guild, a collection of mutually beneficial plants, might be. For him, the definition of a guild needs to be fluid, because each plant has its own ecosystem, there is not always a single central element, such as a tree, for example, and it can include not only plants, but birds and insects as well. The key is really fluidity of design – we’re not in control anyway, he says!

Eric Toensmeier, fellow-American and co-author with Jacke, and also author of Perennial Vegetables, talked on Perennial vegetables: biodiversity, carbon sequestration and nutrition and emphasised the efficiency of agroforestry food systems in carbon sequestration. He mentioned the ‘reference crops’, usually the well-known annuals such as tomatoes, aubergines or broccoli for example, saying that these are not the crops with the highest nutrient levels. In fact there are many tree crops, such as the Edible Leaf Mulberry (Morus alba) or the Chinese Toon (Toona sinensis), and even the humble Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), which have much higher nutrient values.

For something really inspirational, there was Alp Pir’s talk Functional forests nourish life. Based in southern Turkey, Alp has created his own forest garden, and several others in his locality, using a wide range of native and non-native, temperate and tropical plants, taking full advantage of his Mediterranean climate. He emphasised not only the range of the forest garden layers, from canopy to soil, but also the social and emotional benefits of forest gardening, and has provided a great example of how it can improve not only the environment but our own lives as well.

Two contributions that stood out for me were French research scientist Geneviève Michon’s talk on Eco-food forests (link below), inspired by small farmers globally, which resonated deeply with my own experiences in the tropics. We can learn from what exists all over the world, she said, and placed the emphasis firmly on diversity, co-operation and mutuality in expanding forest knowledge.

And secondly, environmental activist Rob Hopkins (of permaculture and Transition Town fame) whose talk was titled What if … the future is forest gardens, on the loss of collective imagination in today’s world, the ability to see what things could be like if we were to only try. “If we can’t imagine it, we can’t build it” he said. We need this sort of thinking to turn the potential of forest gardens into reality on a much wider scale.

And on the subject of wider scale, one of the criticisms of forest gardening from the scientific establishment has always been the lack of potential for ‘scaling-up’, part of the old argument that small-scale agroforestry will never be able to replace industrial agriculture and feed the world (see also my other articles on this subject).

For this, the Symposium presented John D. Liu’s excellent 45-minute video Green Gold, which covers projects worldwide, including for example one with Geoff Lawton in Jordan, and another of 35,000 hectares in the Loess Valley in China. The projects highlighted in the video, whilst covering large areas, are still small-scale in the sense that they are the collective work of many ordinary people, and are just as relevant today in the affluent ‘west’ as in the so-called ‘developing’ countries – desertification is coming to a field near you! Apart from emphasising the fundamental importance of the hydrological cycle throughout his film, one of Liu’s main arguments is that functional ecosystems are the real source of wealth (cumulative, or always more) and that the products and services of the modern economic system are derived from that. He argues that it is impossible for the derivative to be more valuable than the source, and will (and does) always lead in the end to poverty and desertification (‘dis’-cumulative, or always less).

By including speakers on forest gardens and health, there was also a nod to the Covid-19 pandemic, since our health, and particularly mental health, has come to the fore as never before during this crisis. With the immediate danger appearing to have passed there are signs that we are returning to the ‘comfort’ of business as usual. Let’s hope not, it would be a pity to miss the golden opportunity for change through collective action worldwide that the pandemic has shown us is entirely possible.

There was also implicit criticism from several speakers of the irresponsibility of the political classes and big business when it comes to taking care of the planet. There is so much that is positive and good going on in the world of forests, agroforestry and forest gardens, and the Symposium did a good job of emphasising this, but it risks being overshadowed by those with power and different agendas.

But here too, there are also positive signs, with many organisations – TED Countdown, the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the research program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), The Crowther Lab, to name just a few – providing the lead and the impetus for change through webinars and online information dissemination.

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