The Answer is in the Trees

Sharon February 25th, 2009

This is a guest post by Elaine Solowey, an Israeli orchardist and the director of sustainable agriculture for the Arava Institute for Environjmental Studies, who has been kind enough to share her work on this blog before.  She’s a wonderful writer, doing remarkable research on the ability of perennial tree crops to feed and sustain us.  This essay was published in Haaretz, for Tu B’Shevat, which is the Jewish New Year of the Trees which was a couple of weeks ago (yup, we have a holiday for trees).  Thanks, Elaine, for letting me reprint this!

I found this essay particularly important in light of Joseph Romm’s decision to begin a series on “biomass co-firing” as a replacement for coal.  Translated into english (and the language matters here), biomass co-firing means “using forests to generate electricity.”  Note the near absence of the words “trees” and “forests” from Romm’s piece, and the reference to non-existent plantations of fast growing trees or switchgrass.  This is a way of legitimizing deforestation, and one that I’ve been worried about for a long time.  In “The Ethics of Biofuels” written some years ago, I wrote:

And as we must take care with what we label “waste” products, we also need to think carefully about how we regard our remaining resources. For example, we in America could easily choose, over the next decades, to exploit all of our remaining forests, watersheds, and even-remotely tillable land to produce bio-replacement crops for the fossil fuels we’ve come to depend upon. The first step in this disastrous exercise is the linguistic transformation of the whole and varied ecology of a forest into “biomass production” or of a bushel of corn into “ethanol in its raw state.” Let us not forget that what we are speaking of is forest and food.”

I admit, I would never have anticipated that this language shift would come endorsed by climate activists.  I understand the desperation to stabilize the climate that underlies this move, but it is a potential disaster.  As Peak Oil Hausfrau has documented in her “Preventing Deforested Moonscapes” series, and as Nate Hagens describes at The Oil Drum, we’re already using virtually all of the sustainable output of our forests.  Deforestation is a disaster waiting to happen, and one that it is essential to avoid – in part because the advantages of burning trees to generate electricity are likely to be outweighed rapidly by the release of carbon as soils erode and forests decline.

So Solowey’s call for aboreal agriculture, and a focus on trees is especially urgent – because clearly even those most concerned with the future have a  tough time seeing the forest.

The answer is in the trees 

As we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the holiday of the trees, we need to take a critical look at our cultivation and production methods. Whereas tree crops represent one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture, they are outnumbered by modern agriculture’s megacrops, which badly damage the earth. The latter waste nutrients, pollute the water and allow topsoil to be blown away, while the chemicals they are sprayed with contaminate food. And modern agriculture uses more energy than it produces in the form of food. Amid a global energy crisis and world hunger, we cannot afford such carelessness.

Perennial crops are inherently more sustainable than the annual crops of modern agriculture, which need to be replanted each year. Sustainable agriculture can help heal the earth – if we recognize its value in boosting the quality of our food and land.

Erosion is the enemy of both agriculture and civilization, according to J. Russell Smith, author of “Tree Crops,” a classic text on arboreal agriculture. Smith took a series of trips in the 1930s to the Mediterranean, Far East and Middle East to study land use. He was appalled by the vast stretches of destroyed and depleted land he encountered: ” Forest – field – plow – desert. That is the cycle of the hills under most plow agricultures.” Between the water erosion on hilly and sloping lands and the wind erosion on flat plains, the world’s fertile topsoil continues to drift away or be washed away. So it is no exaggeration to say that topsoil erosion is as big a threat as climate change, a problem not as visible as the coming oil shortage but a far greater danger to humankind.

The world’s population is bigger than ever, and all humanity needs food. But depending, for our food, on a system that systematically ruins the land simply means that sooner or later we will not be able to produce food for ourselves.

The megacrops (the most important commercial crops) of the 20th century are all weak competitors – they have to be planted in environments where other plants have been eliminated. Grains, for instance, are grown on bare fields with every weed sprout sprayed or harrowed out of existence. Rice is cultivated in flooded, intensively weeded paddies; soybean and rapeseed are grown in fields stricken by chemicals; and corn is grown in huge blocs as big as small countries, where no other living thing is allowed to survive.

A terrible ecological price is paid for this kind of cultivation, all over the world. Communities wither, wildlife disappears, and the land dies. Unfortunately, almost every modern crop is cultivated this way.

That is, every kind of crop except trees. Their bounty of fruits, nuts, fibers or pods is a blessing to the earth, and their cultivation is not inherently damaging. Trees do not need annual plowing and can be fertilized with organic materials like compost and mulch. Diverse orchards can be kept pest free with sensible strategies.

Just about every damaging factor in modern agriculture is absent from arboreal cultivation. Tree crops can actually yield significantly more food, including carbohydrates and animal feed. Once upon a time, in ancient Greece and among Native Americans in California , for example, the main source of bread was oak trees. The bottom line is that there are many alternative options that need to be explored.

Moreover, the ecological benefits of trees are profound: They make food and oxygen, and manufacture topsoil by breaking up rocks in the subsoil and releasing minerals later stored in fruit, seeds and leaves. Their roots stabilize the soil and protect it – creating microorganisms and insect homes. Trees stop erosion, store water and are magnets for rain. A mature deciduous tree may give off 500 liters of water from its approximately six acres of surface area on a warm summer day. The cool air under the trees, drawn upward as rain clouds glide over, often leads to rain. The trees then absorb water through their leaves, and the raindrops settle among their roots.

With all the benefits of arboreal agriculture, why then are plowed crops the most prevalent form of cultivation? Perhaps modern agriculture has narrowed its sights to things that can be bred quickly and provide produce quickly – things that can be done in an instant. Agriculture is focused on quick annual crops.

On this Tu Bishvat, we should remember trees’ environmental benefits in mitigating and stabilizing the climate: The air and the earth are several degrees cooler under a tree in hot climates and several degrees warmer in a cold one. In addition to acting as the world’s lungs, trees are the earth’s air conditioners. Deforestation, something of a throwaway line when global climate change is discussed, is most likely one of its main causes. Public debate over climate change must address alternative cultivation methods and embrace arboreal agriculture as a key solution.

24 Responses to “The Answer is in the Trees”

  1. Greenpa says:

    You’ll be astonished to learn, Sharon, that I agree with most of this tree stuff. :-)

    And I’m delighted she credits J. Russell Smith- he really did open every one’s eyes; and if you’re thinking “permaculture” or “woody agriculture”; it would serve you well to dig up a copy and actually, personally, read “Tree Crops”. It’s not hard reading, and you’ll be astonished at how long people have been aware of the problems with row crops- and nothing has changed.

    You do need to read it from today’s perspectives, though; and take into account that Smith was neither an ethnographer, nor biologist. He was a geographer. An outstanding one, who kept eyes and mind open- but nonetheless a bit limited in viewpoints; a lot has happened in biology, genetics, and ecology, since he was writing.

    One point about trees and food- something that is simultaneously a strong point and a problem- they live a very long time.

    The good news is; no plowing needed; the bad news is; a big pecan tree is not portable. You can’t move it 20 meters to the left, if you find the big tree is now interfering with something; and you can’t take it with you, if you have to move.

    Be prepared to plan, deeply; and to stay put. And- caveat- beware of creeping fantasy. Yes, two elves and a squirrel can live nicely under one oak tree- but how are we going to feed the cities?

  2. EJ says:


    The cities, the cities- always a problem in these discussions. No one has come up with a way to feed them, but neither does anyone want to talk seriously about this. Urban farming won’t do it, victory gardens won’t either.

    On a cheerier note see the blog below.

    “Happy (Tree) New Year!

    My Tu B’Shevat menu synthesized Middle Eastern fare, Israeli tree crops, and local, seasonal New England foods. Every dish contained at least one ingredient from a tree, even if it was just cinnamon.
    Friday, February 20, 2009

  3. Jennie says:

    Not all trees are happy trees.
    Look at the almond production in CA. They have acres and acres of NOTHING but almond trees. No weeds, no shrubs, just almonds. They have to truck in pollinators, because even though almond trees are a fantastic source of food for pollinators, they are only a source for a month, and then those acres and acres of almond trees are a barren wasteland for pollinators.
    Don’t underestimate the ability of agrobusinessmen to take a good idea like trees and make it into a bad idea.

  4. Susan says:

    Regarding EJ’s comment that no one has addressed how to feed the cities:

    I don’t know. I think if pretty much everyone grew something, if all the empty lots were gardens, if people ate less and it was more healthy, we could still give a subsistence diet to urban people.

    The almond trees are, once again, a monoculture. The author mentioned ‘Diverse Orchards’ and that doesn’t include the almond farms as they are now.

    The problem is that human tendency to take anything and think if one is good, six are better. And that we can standardize nature.

  5. texicali says:

    Great article. I agree that if you are planning on moving planting trees may not be ideal. However, as the prophet Mohammed is reputed to have said when asked what to do if the world ends to morrow “plant a tree.” You may in fact end up adapting in place and you will have wasted time getting your fruit trees in.

    The almond orchards are a problem of scale and mechanization just like wheat or any other crop. Large investments in equipment lead to larger and larger monocultures.

    On a positive note, check out the Deputy Director for the Department of Agriculture.

    I recall a robust debate on the “Farmer in Chief My Ass” post, and this provides a little bit more to consider.

  6. Emily says:

    I’m getting really excited about the idea of gasification of fast-growing wood. See for a nice explanation of an integrated system to produce motor fuel, heat, electricity, fish, vegetables, and soil fertility in a carbon-neutral way.

  7. Greenpa says:

    Emily- I really don’t want to poop any parties- but “fast growing wood” has been around for decades now, with about 5 acronyms, and counting. Bottom line- I don’t see any real-world usage, anywhere; just “demonstrations”, and research. There ARE big problems with going full scale, and long term.

    And I don’t know OneStraw at all, but – he just built his gasifier, less than a year ago. Will he still be enthusiastic in 5 years? Gasifiers date back to pre WWII. And the rest of the scheme is somewhere in the future – “hey, guys, we COULD do this!”

    Fine and good. Just saying.

  8. This post makes me even more pleased that we ordered shelterbelt trees this year!$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex2995

    Here in Alberta (and I think the other provinces have the same program), if you own more than 5 acres you can apply to have trees sent to you for free, you just pay the shipping. You submit a plan of where you’re gonna put them, request your varieites, and they ship out baby trees to a nearby depot in the spring. We were able to get all but one of the varieties we requested (all out of Manitoba Maple this year), and we ordered several varieties that produce berries so that we can provide shelter and food for birds and possibly some for ourselves, too.

    Next on the list is the orchard: there aren’t a whole lot of fruit trees that do well in our cold climate, so I want to talk to our local horticulutralist and get some ideas for where to best plant (microclimates) and what varieites to put in (I know there’s a u-pick apple orchard near here, so apples will definitely be on our list … plus we are Apple Jack Creek, after all!).

    Anyone ever put in fruit trees this far north? I’m all ears!

  9. gong hay fat choy and rostov novem godem.

    to greenpa- your statements on movable pecan trees reminds me of scene in akira kurasawa’s movie version of macbeth.

    remember that the north american indians planted crops and built a way of life which was intended for the benefit of the seventh generation, I know this is not the instant gratification you seek. but the seeds you sow today may be reaped by your great great great great great grandchildren, is it stupid to start today?

    I admire you innovative spirit, but dont forget the past, dont discount the future and dont be short sighted. permaculture is not mearly “demonstrations and research”
    the risk of seeming wrong today may outway the benefits of being right tommarow. be patient, wait and see.

    to EJ – I totally disagree with you about Victory Gardens and Urban ag, in the future this will be the norm. think of the kitchen gardens during the breznev period in soviet russia. this saved their asses.

    don’t underestimate the little guy, most of the innovation and dynamic research in agriculture is occuring there. support them now, while we still have the luxury of failure.

    to Jennie and texicali- i totally agree with you, Most farmers today in California have the mentality of accountants and not of a forager. like the american system of government, we all need to intergrate rather than segragate.

    to emily- when you say gassification do you mean stove? just call it a stove.

    to susan- cities at least in cali, are surrounded by food, it is just ignorance of them which perpetuates poverty. if you cant realize the benifits of a polyculture of people, how do you expect them to realize the benefits of a polyculutre of plants. democracy to the entire biosphere.

    i slam my glass of bacchus wine and cheer la hayyum

  10. EJ says:

    On feeding cities;
    I hate to use “internet facts” but the only number I can come up with is that each person eating a North American diet needs approx 1.2 acres farm land to support current eating habits. It seems reasonable, but if anyone has a more accurate number I’d be happy to see it.

    More than 8 million people live in New York City, to support New Yorker City dwellers alone 9.6 million acres of farm land would be needed. All of New York state is 34,915, 840 acres. New York city is 195,072 acres. NYC would be able to support less than 200,000 people – not including infrastructure (houses, roads etc). Where are the remaining 7,800,000 people going to get their food?

    While eating less, eating lower on the food chain and other innovations may be able to solve some of this problem the fact remains that there isn’t enough space in cities to grow meaningful amounts of food. This is why we have huge farms and import lots of food. The impact of our eating habits and food choices is enormous.

    More pooping with Greenpa- fast growing trees are not a free lunch either. They have to grow somewhere- often on farm land, or replacing a native ecosystem. For “optimum” growth water and fertilizer are needed.

  11. Lance says:

    Trees are an essential part of my religion as a Once and Future Druid. They have a right to be as they are without more manipulation to suit our human excesses. The city is a human excess.

    There is no way to make our unsustainable system sustainable…it’s all just more greenwashing and killing the living soul of the Mother.

    Will we change in the ways we need to change? To accept death gracefully as part of the wheel of life? To accord equal rights to all things that exist to exist in the way they are, without genetic manipulation, or best management practices…just to live.

    Whatever. I know that as a living creature, I will fight to live as long as I can. That’s what living things do. I will help my neighbor to live. And when it comes to dying, I will die, fighting to live, but finally slipping into death.

    But I am with the Prophet on this one. I can think of nothing as hopeful, or as progressive, or as ethical, or as being close to God, as planting a tree.

  12. Greenpa says:

    goyam- “permaculture is not mearly “demonstrations and research” ”

    Really? Can you show me a permaculture village, totally supported by themselves? Or even one farm? Truly; I’m not aware of any. Lots of single farms with “only 30 years to go, before it all works…” – and lots of people with jobs off the farm.

  13. Shane says:

    Actually a lot of work has been done on growing annual crops inside a mixed pasture- Fukuokas is just one approach to this. This eliminates erosion, maintains soil carbon and life and the crop grows just as well (and you can graze it immediately after harvest).
    The only special thing about trees is their size.

  14. RC says:

    The only special thing about trees is their size?
    Excuse me while I poke out my eye. The only special thing about trees is their size? Wait, I’m gouging out the other eye. Man, he cannot see the forest for the trees.

  15. Brad K. says:

    The article asks “With all the benefits of arboreal agriculture, why then are plowed crops the most prevalent form of cultivation?”

    I think the gist of the answer is that modern agribusiness is about business, not growing food from the land. The USDA and equipment manufactures, then chemical manufacturers, have defined “modern farming” as credit intensive, geared to overproduction of the land, artificial pesticide and fertilizer use.

    Farming trees just doesn’t do it. You don’t have the immediate cash flow from the bank loans for planting and harvesting. You don’t have the government subsidies and string pulling to manage crop prices and out-of-production acres.

    No Congressman gets a vote because he acted to “save” tree farmers with the “new farm bill”.

    As I understand the WWII “Victory Gardens”, the intent was not to feed people, but to provide a (higher quality) portion of their diet. Maybe 10% of their diet might come from the garden – counting planted rooftops and window boxes, almost any concerted effort to offload the food distribution network has to help. And don’t overlook the emotional and social benefits of getting your hands in the dirt, of watching and supporting growing plants.

    The Small Farmers Journal some years ago wrote about two families, one in the Pacific Northwest, one in New England (I think!) that lived on sustained woods. Using selective harvesting and actively nurturing their woods, the number and variety of trees has been preserved (in the NW, I think they were on the third generation). One can use draft horses or oxen to remove harvested trees without having to clearcut or even create logging roads. Gail Damerow (Rural Heritage Magazine back 10 years ago) claimed oxen were preferred in Jackson County, TN, for hillsides – they were more sure footed and pulled better. Horses are just quicker.

    As for trees providing food – I read that the hazelnut tree can produce more food per acre than any other crop. I am not sure that includes 250 bushel-to-the-acre corn, but the costs of the crop would be considerably less.

    This coming growing season may be a real revelation. I understand the crash of crop prices after the ethanol balloon burst last fall, means that the expectation is that much of agribusiness is looking at spending more to put in crops this spring than can be expected from this fall’s harvest. Ruin the “business” part of agri-business, and things could come unglued quickly.

    Apple Jack Creek,

    I grew up in NW Iowa, a surprisingly cold climate. Spencer, IA (8 miles away), Butte, MT, and International Falls, MN were regularly the cold spots in the nation. We had apple trees, and plums, crab apple, walnut trees, raspberry and blackberries. There had used to be grapes around, until herbicides like 2,4D Ester gassed them all. If you check around, there may still be herbicide threats to what will survive for you. A local garden center may be able to help identify candidate varieties, too. Luck!

  16. Pangolin says:

    I’m out here in Butte County California and boy do we have trees. Our edible tree crops start with almond, walnuts, peaches, pecans, plums, apples, cherries, olives, oranges(mandarin, navel, valencia, Diller, and blood), grapefruit, mulberries, loquats, figs…. you get the picture. I like that some of you spotted right away the hazards of monocultures in tree crops.

    Under the local walnut orchards in the summer it’s practically night. The trees grow so thick the sun doesn’t hit the ground and the swept soil is dead. Almond, walnut and stone fruit orchards are monocropped right up to the farmers houses and you will rarely see a vegetable garden next to a farm-house. They have to buy their food at Winco in town. Vast sums are spent to laser-level huge fields so that irrigation waters don’t have a chance to make it back to the river they came from. Just to top the fun off the prunings and stumps are thrown into piles 30 feet high, frequently with household garbage included, and burned in the winter.

    Planting trees simply isn’t enough to guarantee a thriving ecosystem. Making diversity happen on small farms is slowly gaining a foothold and several family farms are planting new crops in order to have year-round crops for farmers markets and smaller shocks should one tree crop fail. I even know a family that is raising chickens in mobile coops under the trees and selling both the eggs and meat. Along with oranges, peaches and plums.

    As far as urban harvest goes. In some parts of town you can feed yourself a meal in three blocks just eating what you can reach from the sidewalk. That’s not every day but late fall nobody starves in this town. You might get tired of cracking nuts but there’s no lack of food. Right now it’s grapefruit; all the grapefruit you can eat and people glad to have you remove it so they don’t have to pick it off their lawns.

    It’s still dormant season. Prune what you have in and plant some more!!

  17. Peakfun says:

    “biomass co-firing means “using forests to generate electricity.”

    Hemp Hemp Hooray!

    why not hemp?

    large biomass per acre and fast growing too. take it from one who knows.


  18. Crisismode says:

    What a delight to hear about the Native Americans and Ancient Greeks using oak trees (acorns) for making bread! My yard has numerous oak trees, and for several years I have used a leaf shredder to make compost and mulch for the garden. But always I thought that is was a shame that the copious acorns which dropped were only useful for the squirrels.

    Well, now I believe that there may be a good use for all those acorns — free food! Here is a great link to learn how to process the acorn meats and to make acorn bread —

    Hopefully, next fall I will be harvesting a pile of these little gems and storing them up for the winter, just like my furry, four-legged competitors!

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  22. Linda says:

    How do I get the bumper sticker,” The answer is in the trees” or, “The Trees Have the Answer” ? I saw these bumperstickers on cars in San Francisco. I would like to buy some.
    Thank you,

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