Crops to Stop Climate Change: A Global Wiki

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Help Apios Institute develop a global wiki of perennial crops & polycultures to combat climate change!

The goal is to transform agriculture while providing food and other products through the creation of agroecosystems that function at the highest level of biodiversity and ecosystem services – the “epitome of sustainability.”

Multistrata agroforestry systems go by many names – food forests, edible forest gardens, tropical homegardens, and more. What they have in common is their structure – multiple layers of vegetation, typically one or more layers of trees, with further layers of shrubs, vines, herbaceous species, and often fungi and/or livestock.

These “agroforests” can be at a tiny backyard scale or big enough to cover 50-70% of entire islands. Contemporary commercial examples include coffee and cacao under nitrogen-fixing shade trees. Multistrata systems go back 13,000 years in Java, and today are practiced on an estimated 100 million hectares globally (247 million acres), mostly in the humid tropics. Home-scale systems appear quite viable in cold climates, but models of commercial cold-climate hard to find – in deed development of such systems is one of our goals.

Scientists have called tropical homegardens “the epitome of sustainability” and have identified many benefits of these systems:

  • Multistrata agroforestry systems sequester outstanding amounts of carbon – some as high as 40 tons per hectare per year (t/ha/yr). This compares extremely favorably with often-recommended carbon farming strategies like no-till (0.3 t/ha), “regenerative organic” annual crops (2.3), and managed grazing (0.3). Some even sequester carbon at faster rates than adjacent natural forest!
  • Tropical homegardens have the highest levels of biodiversity of any human land management technique. For example, Mesoamerican homegardens average 348 species per hectares (149/acre).
  • In some cases these systems produce more food than monocultures – sometimes much more! For example, in Brazilian oil palm monocultures, oil yields average 5 t/ha. Polycultures of oil palm, with the addition of fruiting vines, nitrogen-fixing trees, and other elements, produce 8.7 t/ha of oil, plus the additional products!

The very complexity that makes these systems so fantastic makes them hard to study, and greatly slows their spread. Outside of the tropics models are few and far between.

Jonathan Bates and Eric Toensmeier, the creators of Paradise Lot are volunteers on the board of the Apios Institute and we believe this technology will help farmers and communities around the world gain knowledge and implement these systems faster.

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Food Forests as Edible Novel Ecosystems

before after backyard

I’m fascinated by the idea that humans now live on a planet that is no longer “wild”. Because of our influence we have changed the face of the living world forever, climate change only being the newest and largest disturbance by our species. Paradise Lot is a microcosm of the impact humans are capable of – in this case a positive impact.

Eric and I designed and implemented an “edible novel ecosystem” made up of native and non-native plants on land once devoid of much diversity. It is likely that the assemblies of plants we planted together have never grown in quite this way ever, and yet life is thriving, producing increasing abundance.

I’m currently reading a book called,” The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Natures Salvation” by Fred Pearce. Essentially he proposes that our “saving nature” “conserve biodiversity” efforts are misguided. If we objectively look at the science and understand how quickly the biosphere is changing, nature evolves well on it’s own, and has for billions of years, that disturbance and change is good. That all animal and plants are welcome no matter how and where the assemble. Here is a quote from him that sums up the book nicely:

“Conservationists need to take a hard look at themselves and their priorities. They must learn from Puerto Rico and Chernobyl, the Tilbury ash heap, and Bikini Atoll, the feral streets of Chicago, and the wider world of novel ecosystems. Nature no longer congregates only where we expect to find it, in the countryside or in “pristine” habitats. It is increasingly eschewing formally protected areas and heading for the badlands. Nature doesn’t care about conservationists’ artificial divide between urban and rural or between native and alien species. If conservationists are going to make the most of the opportunities in the twenty-first century to help nature’s recovery, they must put aside their old certainties and ditch their obsessions with lost causes, discredited theories, and mythical pristine ecosystems.”

Along with this, I might add that when considering how humanity will treat “the new wild” from here on, we design-in diverse useful and edible plant and animal communities when restoring our landscapes. Instead of thinking what might seem best for nature based on historical assumptions, we design for what could be the most abundantly useful to us and our fellow species, considering the environment and culture of each place.

Human’s have the potential to be destroyers or creators. The earth and life will continue on despite what we do. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if we came along for the ride.


Paradise Lot Permaculture Food Forest, Carbon Sequestration on One Tenth Acre

How much Carbon have we sequestered on a tenth of an acre, in ten years, at Paradise Lot?

We (Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates) have done some very rough estimates of how much Carbon has been sequestered in our garden in Holyoke, MA.

This carbon came into our system through the action of green plant photosynthesis, and through the adding of carbonaceous materials, such as woodchips, leaves, and compost (it is impossible to know which source contributed what part of the total soil carbon unfortunately). What we do know is that the system we created has locked a lot of carbon away, and unless we till the system, or burn it with fire, it should stay there for a long time.

From our calculations, we’ve sequestered 7.5 tons of Carbon in 10 years, or .7 tons per year.

So, what is the math we used to get our numbers?:
(formulas borrowed from Soil Carbon Coalition and Eric Toensmeier)


1/10 Acre = .04 hectares

21 tones Carbon per hectare sequestered for every one percent organic matter increase in the soil

With a Logan Labs soil test, Paradise Lot went from 3% to 9% over 10 years, this equals

6% increase, so

21 x 6 = 126 t/ha x .04 hectares equals

5 tons or 1/2 ton of Carbon sequestered per year


In agroforestry systems: for every ton of soil organic carbon below ground, there is a 1/2 ton carbon in above ground biomass, SO,

2.5 tons of carbon above ground plus 5 tons below equal 7.5 tons, or

.7 tons/year

We’ve got the numbers, now how significant is this? We decided to do a basic comparison of this number (.7 tons/year of Carbon sequestered in the Paradise Lot 1/10 acre edible forest garden) to the CO2 emissions generated by the average person living in the U.S.A. per capita.

We could only find CO2 generated, but needed the number in Carbon, so Wikipedia says 17 tons CO2 emissions per capita U.S.A.

CO2 = 3.47 x C

17 divided by 3.47 equals

4.8 tones of Carbon emitted per person per year USA

If you grew a one acre food forest, using our methods, someone living an average carbon wasting lifestyle could easily offset their carbon use (although I’m not advocating here that we live like the average USer).

It is exciting to experience the power and abundance of diverse, multi-story, low-maintenance, temperate edible forest gardens, and realize that we are eating healthier, generating income, and locking carbon away all at the same time.

P.S. What makes these numbers very squishy is the fact that our calculations don’t account for things like the following:

-The fossil fuel carbon we’ve used building the garden: trucking in compost, bagged minerals, and chicken feed, etc
-The fossil fuels we’ve saved not buying food from the store (actually a huge number)
-The influence our garden has had on thousands of people who are also now growing gardens like ours (another huge number)
-The woodchips and leaf mulch used to create and mulch the planting beds

Turmeric, Persimmon and Calamondin Harvested January in Massachusetts

Happy 2015! I was just outside with Jesse, on a balmy 24 degree New Years Day. We did our regular morning chores: took the trash out, brought the kitchen scraps to the compost pile, feed watered and let out the chickens, and then went to check on the bioshelter. While there, Jesse and I decided to pick a few of our almost ripe [READ MORE]


Dear other white people involved in permaculture

Hey Folks… For us to do the real work of creating an ECO-logical, as apposed to EGO-logical society. We need to be working on our own personal issues regarding our relationship to the Global Majority, particularly people of color. My friend and permaculture colleague Lisa DePiano (co-founder of Permaculture FEAST) had some good thinking in this regard, which she posted on her Facebook page:

posted on… “Dear other white people involved in permaculture”.