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The Magic of the Food Forest - Musings and Meditations

Updated: Apr 26





Wouter van Eck takes us on a fascinating short tour in his food forest in this six minute video. The talk is in Dutch, but the video comes with English subtitles, so you don't need to switch on automatic translation in the YouTube player.






In last week's musing, Marc Siepman explained why the soil in a forest is so suitable for growing food.

This week I will continue my ode to the tree, and the wonderful role trees can play in how we are going to reinvent our farming methods.

I call this musing "the magic of the food forest," because it ís quite magical what happens there. And it all happens almost by itself, thanks to the intelligence of nature. And thanks (among other things) to two properties of nature that are in themselves quite magical: synergy and emergence. But more about that later.






This week, Wouter van Eck explains how such a food forest 'works'. That is to say, a forest doesn't 'work' of course, it does its thing, goes about its business, it 'happens' rather than something is being 'done'.

Wouter van Eck is a Dutch farmer who several years ago transformed a flat, dead corn field into a richly thriving food forest.

The food forest is a system that produces abundant food and requires very little to no 'input' of energy beyond sun and water, as opposed to 'normal' industrial agriculture, which cannot exist without particularly energy-intensive methods of (artificial) fertilization, pest and insect control and weed control, or without the particularly damaging method of ripping open the surface of the Earth, a method that we take for granted because it has been practiced for thousands of years, but which is by no means self-evident: tilling. Tilling may be considered as harmful to the soil as the aforementioned pesticides and fertilizers, and as much more harmful to the planet than all air traffic combined.


The food forest can do without all the things that ordinary industrial agriculture requires, and can provide higher yields per acre than that ordinary agriculture. Moreover, food forests contribute to the restoration of biodiversity (in some food forests the biodiversity is in better condition than in some natural areas of first category), regenerate the soil and the microbiome, and provide protection for crops from the effects of the climate crisis, effects that will only get worse and to which conventional monocultures are not very resistant. Heat waves, drought, heavy rains and hail, gusts, you name it: the food forest is much more resistant than a single-crop field, exposed to the elements that are becoming less and less friendly.

So the food forest is one of the answers that regenerative agriculture offers to many of the ecological crises we are facing: the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity and the death of the microbiome in the soil, the nitrogen crisis, and so on.






In this previous post in the blog, I had mentioned why today's industrial agricultural practices are unsustainable. I also talked about this at length in the essay 'Our War against Ourselves', one of the first texts I posted on this site.

Fertilizers and pesticides once seemed like the solution to growing more food faster to feed the world's rising population, but that was anything but a good idea. It was an example of how our thinking is often far too limited, and from a too narrow definition of a problem we arrive at a "solution" that itself creates far worse problems than the original problem. The result of a simplistic, mechanistic view of what agriculture is and can be, what nature is, and what our place is in the larger picture of the biosphere.


In agriculture. as in so many aspects of our relationship with our biotope, we have left out a HUGE amount of data and parameters, as "externalities”.

We do this over and over again, and this is what quantum physicist David Bohm meant when he argued (repeatedly) that our thinking is usually itself an integral part of the problem. And it is also (at least partly) what Einstein meant that no problem can be solved from the way of thinking that caused that problem.

In order to arrive at different solutions, we need to engage in "meta-thinking" and discover where our blind spots are, the habits that keep causing us to come up with solutions that get us further and further into trouble. What we need is a form of proprioceptive thinking.

But I digress, and that strange word (proprioception) is something for another musing.







The widespread use of pesticides only really took off after World War II, and that was no accident. There was a large surplus of unused chemicals that had been developed for the war effort, and they were used in our "war on nature," our ultimate attempt to perpetuate our dominance and control over nature.

What we do in our industrial agriculture is also really warfare, and stems from the same errors of thought and perception that lead to war against fellow human beings. That literally the same materials were and are used for this war against nature as in "real" warfare is symbolically significant. Even the rolling stock of industrial agriculture, the giant tractors, plows, and harvesters, are very much like war equipment (and are also very damaging to the quality of the topsoil).



 




Seventy years later, the greatest wave of extinction in Earth's history is in full swing, and industrial agriculture is one of the main culprits in it.

Pesticides kill everything that lives in, under, above and around our fields, fertilizers feed the plants (but not in a way that makes them nutritious to us, quite the contrary) but kill the energy of the soil and the microbiome, large-scale plowing is a disaster for the mycelium in and the structure of the soil and is the cause of a gigantic release of CO2 from the earth in the plowing season, where regenerative agriculture can actually sequester a huge amount of carbon.

Worldwide, depending on where you look, seventy to ninety-five percent of insects have disappeared, and a third to half of birds. The "silent spring" that Rachel Carson warned about in her seminal work on the effects of DDT in agriculture has arrived.


The consequence of all this is also that our fertile topsoil is disappearing all over the world at a chillingly fast rate: we are losing about the surface area of Greece in fertile topsoil every year. The average farmer applying ordinary industrial agricultural practices to his land loses on average about three to four tons of fertile topsoil per acre per year.

Moreover, the spectacular increase in the use of pesticides and herbicides is accompanied by the dramatic increase in cancer and all kinds of autoimmune diseases in the world, especially since the introduction of glyphosate in industrial agriculture.


To make a long story short enough for the space of one musing: our agriculture is a dead-end street. And the end of that street is in sight.


The transition to regenerative agriculture is not an option, but a necessity. And that transition can play a key role in addressing many of the other ecological crises we are in the midst of. Moreover, the practice of regenerative agriculture can help change our relationship with the Earth, and return us to a very different experience of our connection with that part of us that is outside our bodies and what we commonly call "nature”. And can also begin to dramatically change for the better the relationship we have with food. In short, it's a win-win-win-win proposition.






Food forests and other practices of regenerative agriculture make clever use of nature's synergistic properties, and by means of harnessing nature's synergistic processes ourselves, we ourselves as a species can take a "proper" place in our biosphere, as part of the processes of synergy and emergence that define nature at all scales of magnitude.


We ourselves can become a synergistic part of the biosphere, rather than trying to control that biosphere, which is a futile ambition and one that springs from a hilarious degree of hubris.

Synergy and emergence, two terms I also touched on in last week's musing, are two particularly mysterious properties of nature and of the Universe. Synergy is the process of different elements coming together to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, and that is capable of much more than the individual parts are capable of separately. Emergence is what that 'more' is or can be, that which is created by synergy.


Next week I will have philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger meditate on these two phenomena, in a fascinating talk that opens up a dizzying panorama of implications and possibilities for situating ourselves differently in this wonderful world of ours, as part of the world rather than an enemy of it. If we wage war against nature, nature wins in every case. But if we can find our place in the whole, in a way that also makes the whole flourish even more, a wonderful future may await us.


Thanks for reading and watching, until the next installment,


All the best,

Filip







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