Now that food shortages are in the headlines, too many people are getting the idea that the solution to 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; 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 brain child 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. 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.
World cropland: The pie is mostly crust
The edible landscaping trend is catching on across the country, and with food prices rising, it has taken sadly predictable turns. A Boulder, Colorado 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% of global agricultural land (and a smaller percentage in this country), compared with 75% of world cropland devoted to grains and oilseeds. Their respective portions of the human diet are similar.
Suppose that half of the land on every one-acre or smaller urban/suburban home lot in the entire...