Forest farming: the solution to rampant deforestation?

Huddersfield Green Party member Nick Bowett highlights the practice of ‘forest farming’, which works with nature, rather than against it.


Treetops forest
Nick Bowett

Forest farming involves cultivating useful plants and fungi while keeping the essence of the surrounding forest intact. This type of farming has been practiced for thousands of years and gets to the heart of working with nature, rather than against it, to help us and future generations to thrive.

Unlike wild harvesting, forest farming entails pruning, weeding, removing shrubs, and cultivating desirable plants and fungi. The trees help to keep the soils beneath in a good condition and prevent soil erosion, producing a wide spectrum of healthy wild products including nuts, mushrooms, fruit, honey, syrup, eggs, vegetables, herbs, and wines, as well as dietary and medicinal supplements. Harvested materials can also be used to create a wide range of products including cosmetics (such as shampoo), natural dyes, rubber and baskets. 

Certain goods from forest farms, such as ginseng and shiitake mushrooms, thrive in the attenuated light which reaches the forest floor. Making conditions right for the cultivation of some forest products may require the occasional tree to be felled, but still, large-scale canopy cover is the hallmark of forest farms, as it distinguishes it from other forms of agroforestry. The correct balance can be struck between cultivating useful forest products and maintaining the essence of the forest in question if those who purchase the products insist on conditions being right for production and right for nature. 

Forests are extremely important because they store and absorb carbon. In fact, the world’s forests are estimated to absorb a third of the carbon dioxide that is produced by fossil fuels every year, so they are extremely important in our quest to stabilise temperatures within tolerable limits for future generations. It is a little easier to think and talk about stopping fossil fuel extraction than stopping deforestation because deforestation is far more upsetting to think and talk about. It can oust indigenous tribal communities and others from the land they call home, sheds the earth of its wildlife, and can literally eradicate species that have been around for time immemorial, but in spite of that, we must tackle the deforestation problem with the same vigour.  

At COP26, the UK Government introduced an agreement to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, and, happily, many governments formally agreed to cease deforestation by this date. However, if the Government wants to lead on countering deforestation, it should surely legislate to avoid products being imported from recently deforested areas, as soon as possible. Stopping deforestation outright by 2030, by enlarging government-protected areas is a good goal, but in the meantime, we should surely do our utmost to avoid contributing to it by supporting forest farming, or similar agroforestry enterprises, which add financial value to standing forest land, hence avert large scale clear-felling for intensive agriculture, which is the primary driver of deforestation worldwide.

Forest farming is rare in the UK, but should perhaps become more widespread, so the public becomes familiar with its enduring importance as a form of sustainable agriculture that supports a balanced diet and forest ecosystems. Walnuts, pecans, blueberries, blackberries, Swiss chard and mint are examples of edible plants that can be cultivated on UK forest farms. In Amazonian countries, forest farms contain a whole host of goods such as latex for rubber, oils for cosmetics, fibres for weaving and ropes, brazil nuts, cocoa beans, honey, pineapples, passion fruit, and acai berries.

Mass deforestation of old-growth forests is anathema to forest communities who often have rich cultures that we should surely cherish rather than destroy. We should surely endeavour to take all the steps we can to help avoid the deforestation of old-growth forests by supporting the widening of government-protected areas and buying products from forest farms in order to support those forest communities who want to sell to the outside world. In my view, the buzzing chainsaw should be replaced by the humble axe when it comes to all old-growth forests, because displacing communities who are ‘other’ and rare wildlife is unacceptable.  

Labelling should evolve with the times to reflect the fact that we are, now more than ever, in a world where the health of our planetary home is severely threatened. Purchasers of goods should always be well guided and have clear, reliable, detailed avenues they can go down to support eco-friendly land use by seeing universal high-quality labelling on products or their shelves when shopping, so that they can easily buy in an environmentally sensitive way. Once the plethora of benefits of supporting forest farms, and other agroforestry enterprises, are properly understood a desire to buy forest products may become mainstream, which will, in turn, steer producers and businesses in the right direction.  

Familiarising ourselves with more environmentally friendly ways of farming, which is epitomised by forest farming, is important as we face an uncertain future. Zero-deforestation commodities can only become the norm if enough pressure is put on businesses by purchasers, lawmakers and others. By buying goods from those who support forests we can improve our own health, help forest communities and help to prevent ecosystems from collapsing, directly and indirectly, for ourselves and future generations.