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It will take more than gardening to fix our food system

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I didn't mean to lead anyone down the garden path.  Adding my small voice to those urging Americans replace their lawns with food plants wasn't, in itself, a bad idea.  But now that food shortages and high costs are in the headlines, too many people are getting the idea that the solution to America's and the world's food problems is for all of us in cities and suburbia to grow our own.  It's not.

Don't get me wrong: Growing food just outside your front or back door is an extraordinarily good idea, and if it's done without soil erosion or toxic chemicals, I can think of no downside.  Edible landscaping can look good, and it saves money on groceries; it's a direct provocation to the toxic lawn culture; gardening is quieter and less polluting than running a power mower or other contraption; the harvest provides a substitute for industrially grown produce raised and picked by underpaid, oversprayed workers; and tending a garden takes a lot of time, time that might otherwise be spent in a supermarket or shopping mall.

So it was in 2005 that our family volunteered our front lawn to be converted into the first in a now-expanding chain of "Edible Estates", the brainchild of Los Angeles architect/artist Fritz Haeg.  We already had a backyard garden, but growing food in the front yard (which, as Haeg himself points out, is a reincarnation of a very old idea) has been a wholly different, equally positive experience. 

Our perennials and annuals are thriving, we've gotten a lot of publicity, and I've been talking about the project for almost three years.  Yet neither of our gardens, front or back, can stand up to the looming agricultural crisis.  Good food's most well-read advocate, Michael Pollan, has written that growing a garden is worth doing even though it can make only a tiny contribution to curbing carbon-dioxide emissions.  He might have added that growing food is worth it even if it does very little to revive the nation's food system.

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World cropland: the pie is mostly crust

The edible-landscaping trend is catching on across the country, and with food prices rising, it has taking sadly predictable turns.  A Boulder, Colo. entrepreneur, for example, has tilled up his and several of his neighbors' yards and started an erosion-prone, for-profit vegetable-farming operation.  It will supplement his income, but it won't make a nick in the food crisis.

That's because the mainstays of home gardening -- vegetables and fruits -- are not the foundation of the human diet or of world agriculture.  Each of those two food types occupies only about 4 percent of global agricultural land (and a smaller percentage in this country), compared with 75 percent of world cropland devoted to grains and oilseeds.  Their respective portions of the human diet are similar.

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Suppose that half of the land on every one-acre-or-smaller urban/suburban home lot in the entire nation were devoted to food-growing.  That would amount to a little over 5 million acres (pdf) sown to food plants, covering most of the space on each lot that's not already covered by the house, a deck, a patio, or a driveway. (And in many places it couldn't be done without cutting down shade trees and planting on unsuitably steep slopes). 

That theoretical 5 million acres of potential home cropland compares with about 7 million acres of America's commercial cropland currently in vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and 350 to 400 million acres of total farmland.  The urban and suburban area to be brought into production would not approach the number of healthy acres of native grasses and other plants that are slated to be plowed up and sickened to make way for yet more corn, wheat, soybeans, and other grains under the newly passed federal Farm Bill. 

A nationwide grow-your-own wave would send good vibes through society, ripples that could be greatly amplified by community and apartment-block gardening.  But front- and backyard food, even if everyone grew it, would not cover the country's produce needs, much less displace our huge volume of fresh-food imports. 

We could, instead, plant every yard to wheat, corn, or soybeans, which would account only for a little over two percent of the US land sown to those crops.   Other policies, like dispensing with grain-fed meat and fuel ethanol, would free up far more grain-belt land than that.

Not even a poke in the eye

I've played a part in the promotion of domestic food-growing, and I now I seem to hear daily from people who believe that it's the best alternative to industrial agriculture (as in, "I'll show Monsanto and Wal-Mart that I don't need their food!").  Even though most prominent home-lot food efforts, like the "100-Foot Diet Challenge", also try to draw attention to bigger issues, the wider message can get lost in the excitement.  Whatever its benefits, replacing your lawn with food plants will not give Big Agribusiness the big poke in the eye that it needs, nor will it save the agricultural landscapes of the nation or world. 

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To do that, the big-commodity market must be not just modified but overthrown.  Until then, most of that two-thirds or more of the human calorie and protein intake that comes from grains and oilseeds (directly in most of the world or among Western vegetarians, largely via animal products for others in this country) will continue to be served up by a dirty, cruel, unfair, broken system.

Essential for providing vitamins, minerals, and other compounds, a highly varied diet is important, and home gardens around the world help provide such a diet.  But with a world population now approaching seven billion people and most good cropland already in use, only rice, wheat, corn, beans, and other grain crops are productive and durable enough to provide the dietary foundation of calories and protein. 

Grains made up about the same portion of the ancient Greek diet as they do of ours. We've been stuck with grains for 10,000 years, and our dependence won't be broken any time soon.

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Stan Cox is author of "Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine" (Pluto Press, April 2008). He conducts plant-breeding research and writes in Salina, Kansas.

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