From monocultures to food forests

The landscapes in Costa Rica‘s south are dotted with monocultures, above all oil palms and cattle pastures. Monocultures are easy to maintain and seem on the surface to be economically efficient. The problem lies in the fact that monocultures work diametrically against the circularity of nature. The resulting devastating consequences are the loss of ‘ecoservices’ which provide clean air, clean water, fertile soils, stable climate, biodiversity and many other things essential for our survival. These losses are about to present humanity with its greatest challenge to date.

To address this challenge, we developed concepts to convert palm oil monocultures into profitable, biodiverse polycultures. In these designs, we aim to follow the structures and patterns through which naturally-grown forests sustain themselves. As a result, they have a positive impact not only on the community but also on the environment.

We illustrated the blueprint of one of our concepts in a short animation. Of course, no two plots are alike, which is why this blueprint needs to be tailored to the specific circumstances.

The Spanish version can be found here.

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Background: the challenges of monocultures

There are several problems arising when crops are grown in monocultures:

First, monocultures quickly deplete the soil from nutrients the plant needs to grow. In consequence, chemical fertilizers become necessary: they further deplete the soil by killing off microorganisms essential for its fertility and water-holding capacity. The impoverished soil then is not only infertile, but also helplessly exposed to erosion – we literally lose the ground under our feet.

Second, monocultures are a feast for diseases and plagues. Conventional agriculture therefore uses pesticides and herbicides, once again ignoring their devastating consequences: poisoning waterbodies, killing bees and other pollinators, causing sterility in birds etc. In addition, monocultures are always at risk of being completely eradicated by pesticide-resistant pathogens or insects. In Costa Rica, banana monocultures have suffered this fate before.

Third, the need for land in industrial agriculture is enormous. This need is often met by the deforestation of old-growth rainforests. Currently, the average size of a soccer field is being cut down every second! As usual, consequences are being ignored.

Last but not least, growing only one crop exposes the farmer to unforeseen price drops which can cause painful losses in earnings.

Erosion is one of the most striking consequences of the practices of conventional agriculture. Nature’s remedy are plants that we ironically call weeds. These can grow where other plants can’t: they draw nutrients from the depth of the soil to the surface and as they die, they make them available to more delicate plants. The answer of conventional agriculture, however, is to poison them with ever stronger herbicides, setting off the vicious cycle illustrated above.

Food forests are a central part of the larger solution

These challenges are systemic – they cannot be solved individually. Food forests provide a big part of such a systemic solution: they address this interlinked set of challenges and offer benefits for nature, the economy, and society simultaneously. Watch the video above to see what this can look like in practice.

Benefits for nature

While the nutrient content in the soil in such a design is improving from year to year, food forests also have countless positive effects above the surface: the flowers of the support trees provide food for bees and other pollinators. These, in turn, increase the yield of the crops and attract birds that nest in their branches and keep insects under control. The organic mulch from the regularly pruned trees protects the soil from drying out and eroding, while slowly releasing nutrients for the crops. In addition, the plantation‘s resistance against pests and diseases is significantly increased through the wide range of plant species.

Benefits for the economy

Regenerative agriculture can be profitable. We compared the average revenue and profits of a monoculture and our food forest design, based on conservative estimates of the prices effectively paid by intermediaries in Costa Rica, and found that food forests can be even more profitable than monocultures. We can send detailed information on the collection of the data and a full breakdown of revenues and costs upon request.

Most products can also be processed into value-added products which may add to income significantly. For these we envision accreditation through internationally recognized seals of approval, such as Fairtrade and others.

Benefit for the Society

Well designed food forests also address some of the most pressing socioeconomic problems in this area:

The high unemployment in rural areas is counteracted by the higher demand for workers in polycultures. As a pleasant side effect, working in a food forest is also much more enjoyable than on a monoculture – a fact that our own employees in the Refugio can confirm!

Our polycultures involve the local population in the process of tree and plant production as well. Above all, the growing of the robust nitrogen-fixing trees and the Mexican sunflowers can be outsourced and represents an additional source of income for everyone who owns a small garden.

And last but not least: following up with the production of value-added products opens up new labor markets, leading to the division of labor and to cooperatives that, in turn, promote community cohesion.