It is often the case that human activity negatively affects the environment. For example, human food production is often seen as being at odds with conservation efforts. Yet, the reality is that edible gardening actually has the potential to reduce deforestation and improve biodiversity. Here’s a look at how food production can not only lighten our ecological footprint, but protect and regenerate biodiversity at the same time.
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Agriculture is No Buena (not good) for the Environment
It is widely accepted that agriculture is the world’s leading cause of deforestation and ecosystem destruction, along with human activities such as logging and road development, which allow humans to settle in areas that were previously “wild”.
By and large, we accept these deforestation activities as inevitable, and mourn the loss of the plants, animals, and insects that are displaced or become extinct. I would guess that there are many now-gone species we never had the chance to “discover” or to realize their contribution to the ecosystem.
Forests are the lungs of the earth. They produce oxygen, and regulate climate and water cycles. The trouble with deforesting the world at a rate of 20 football fields per minute is that we won’t be able to calculate, or feel the affects of, this destruction until it’s too late. It’s happening too quickly for plants, animals, and insects to react and adjust.
We are creating a Wild West–complete with soil erosion and deserts–on a global scale.
Depressed yet? Me, too, which is why I wrote this post! There is a diamond in this rough, I promise!
There’s Agriculture and Then There’s Growing Food
Not long ago in human history, we relied on our local ecosystems for food (and water, shelter, clothing, etc). Over time, we moved to the city, which transformed most of us into consumers of products shipped in from who-knows-where.
When we actually get around to buying food products like fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, eggs, and meat (when we’re not super-busy and ordering carryout), you can bet that most of these items were produced by industrial Agriculture.
Agriculture (with a capital “A”) is the primary villain in this story of forest destruction, so let’s take a look. Modern industrial Agriculture has a single goal: Produce the most stuff at the lowest cost for the quickest rate of return. This seems like a sound business strategy. If we were producing a product in a factory, we could switch on that conveyor belt at a higher speed and really pump out some extra goods.
Except with agriculture, the product isn’t being made in a factory. We rely on real, live animals (in the case of concentrated livestock operations), the sun, rain, soil health, real live farm workers, and more. There are a lot of variables when it comes to growing things, and the more industrial agriculture can treat each of those like constants rather than variables, the better off the bottom line is.
In this scenario, soil isn’t treated like the living, breathing organism that it is. Rather, it’s treated like dirt–a dispensary of synthetic nutrients. Farm workers are stripped of rights and work in worsening conditions for less and less pay to improve the bottom line. These are just a few examples of the impact of Agriculture.
As the land becomes stripped of soil health, it produces less, and more land is needed to grow the same amount of “product”. That product–whether it’s organic carrots or conventional tomatoes–will be less nutrient dense over time as the soil is overworked and stripped of its nutrients.
There’s more to this Big Ag story, but since this is all so depressing, I’m going to skip right to the exciting part–the part where you and I swoop in with capes on and save the planet by growing food outside of the industrial model. (Hold the vision!)
Gardeners: Fasten your Capes
My premise here is that residential yards (and their owners) have the power to reduce deforestation, affect land use issues on a large scale, and regenerate lost biodiversity. It may sound like a stretch, but the power is in the number of people who follow the upward trend of growing food right outside their door. Let’s take a look at this exciting opportunity before us!
Did you know that the largest irrigated crop in the United States can be found in the suburbs? Yeah, according to Food Not Lawns and this article in the Huffington Post, the largest irrigated crop in the U.S. is LAWN. Although a bit of lawn is nice for decorative purposes and for play, the majority of it is wasted space (sometimes, chemical laden space) that could actually produce a lot of (organic) fruits and vegetables–food crops that could be intermingled with plants that support biodiversity.
Yeah, but how much food could a little slice of lawn actually produce?
According to a study by the University of London, England, one acre of backyard garden can produce THREE TIMES more food than one acre of farmland. How is that possible? Well, as gardeners, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with our little garden plots, can’t we? Now think about that industrial farmer, with hundreds, or even thousands, of acres. Talk about overwhelmed.
None of those farmland acres can be lovingly tended to. One acre can’t be given special care when its needs are different from the other acres in the mega-bunch. As a backyard (or front yard) gardener, rather, you can tailor your activities to match the needs of your little space. In return, your garden will show its gratitude by producing a bountiful harvest.
Need more proof that residential gardening efforts can outpace industrial agriculture?
The Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center was curious as to whether the buzz about urban agriculture was worth all of the effort. Researchers wondered: Can cities produce enough of their own food to warrant more funding for urban agriculture projects? If so, questions of food security would be answered. (The majority of U.S. farmers will be retiring within the next 10 years.) If cities could become more self reliant, it would be good for the economy.
The study looked at the city of Cleveland, Ohio. What they discovered is that Cleveland could actually produce almost 100% of its own fruits, vegetables, eggs, and honey by using existing vacant lots, flat industrial and commercial rooftops, and 9% of each residential yard.
(For scale, 9% of one acre equates to an area about 60 x 60-feet.)
Okay, but what does all this have to do with deforestation?
I’m glad you asked!
Become a Producer and Save the Forest
Producing our own produce, eggs, and honey in the residential areas where we live (half of all Americans now live in the suburbs according to the U.S. Census Bureau) would mean that the way we use rural and wild lands could change.
Instead of needing to provide for ALL of our city-slicker needs, when we produce our own fruits and vegetables, the farms on the periphery of cities could grow staple crops–like grains–and livestock, that are more suitable for non-residential areas. They could easily be grown using humane practices that regenerate ecosystems.
Perennial food forest systems like those found in cutting-edge books like Restoration Agriculture, Edible Forest Gardens, and Farming the Woods, would help to transform agriculture from a destructive practice to one that reforests farmland and regenerates ecosystems and wildlife habitat.
In summary, when we shift food production to residential spaces using ecologically friendly methods, we are less dependent on rural and wild lands to meet our needs. We’ve lifted the dependency that tends to warrant abuse of rural land, and we’ve done so while making our own living spaces more biodiverse.
More of our existing forests could remain forested.
Rural farmland could be holistically managed to produce higher quality products while restoring fertility and biodiversity. This philosophy plays the long game. Rather than strip the land of fertility for short term gain, we get to treat the land well so that it can produce into the future.
As coordinator of my local community garden, I wrote the following essay on the positive impact of residential gardens for a local event.
Connecting to Place through Edible Gardening
by Amy Stross, Hillside Community Garden Coordinator
Connecting to the place in which one lives is an exciting, sensory experience for all ages. Some activities that connect me to my bioregion include tracing the water and energy sources that come into and out of my home, learning about the rivers, forests, and native wildlife that surround me, and learning about the geologic and human history of this place.
But one of my most favorite activities is learning about my food: from where and how far it comes, and how it impacted the land, people, and animals where it was cultivated.
It takes a lot of food to feed all of us humans three times a day, and the agricultural practices of deforestation and toxic pesticide use on large industrial farms is having a devastating effect on our air, water, and soil – not to mention wildlife.
Learning to take part in growing my own food has allowed me to discover the impact of growing enough food for just one person – let alone a family – and has made me more committed to do so in an efficient and sustainable manner.
I’ve learned that chemical-free and efficient methods of growing food allow for many of my own grocery needs to be provided for right in my own tiny yard, even in dappled shade, right alongside all of the native plants, trees, and shrubs that I’ve planted to nurture the native and migratory bird species of my area. After all, the largest crop in the U.S. is lawn – why not use it for something beneficial to all life?
My hope is that so many of us are attracted to this type of gardening that we can allow many of those wasteful and polluting industrial farms to return to their native state of forest, providing enough contiguous forestland that native endangered predatory animals can have the requisite space to once again roam the land and contribute to a healthy and balanced ecosystem.”
I look forward to your thoughts:
Do you think residential gardening can affect the trajectory of our wild places?