Your lawn may contribute to starvation and climate apocalypse.
But food forests may save human health by bringing the wilderness to us.
As healthcare providers and wilderness protectors, we live in a world stricken by pandemic crisis mismanagement. At its worst in 2020, orphanage directors like Isabel Kargbo in food-insecure Liberia reported sick orphans were denied access to malaria medication by officials using COVID-19 lock-downs as a power-show instead of targeting the most relevant diseases in that young tropical population. Meanwhile in the US, food insecurity skyrocketed as economic closures extended in efforts to “catch up” after both major parties failed to target early quarantine to vulnerable populations, instead politicizing the virus with panic on both sides. Even now, as conflict in Ukraine worsens grain prices the world over—while obesity destroys even populations living below the poverty line—it has become clear that the globalized food network and its carbon emissions are not only bad for the environment and unhealthy to natural human biology, but also unsustainable during crises. Whether we’re talking greenhouse gases or heart disease, the pandemic proved that the way we eat now doesn’t work for our survival long term or our planet’s health.
Enter food forests.
Food forests are woodland systems created to optimize natural environment via succession planting of local shrubs, vines, ground cover, and of course, trees, allowing the natural symbiotic relationship of various fungi, soil types, and root systems to increase food production while protecting biodiversity and preventing disease.
Essentially, they’re tangled, unkempt gardens of edible trees and the plants that grow under them.
Traditional lawns are terrible for the environment. Experts like Randal Barnes, professor from the University of Minnesota, explain that lawns deplete natural aquifers and conflict with local ecosystems, taking up resources for plants that otherwise could provide human food, animal habitat, and disease-resisting biodiversity. Worse, lawn fertilizer run-off destroys local waterways, promoting algae blooms and fish death. A randomized controlled study in Massachusetts found frequent lawn mowing actually decreases all-important bee populations; another large meta-analysis of 46 datasets found frequent lawn mowing also preferentially promotes “pest” species often harmful to human health. Large areas without tree shade tend towards higher temperatures, both harmful for geriatric health and a further economic drain on air conditioning bills, worsening poverty.
Food forests, meanwhile, provide safe environments for beneficial arthropods, and offer superior carbon sequestration—both of which contribute to improved food production. Certain pathogens that thrive in a crop environment don’t evolve well in forests, and of course, forest environments offer other nanotechnology and construction resources. Perhaps most strikingly, a controlled cross-sectional study in Southwest Cameroon found that women living in forest environments produced higher hemoglobin counts compared to women in non-forested villages—a significant finding in an area plagued by malnutrition and anemia, especially post-pregnancy. Denser food forests also minimize human-animal conflict: a study following the range of the samango monkey in South Africa found that these primates traveled less, and stayed in a more consistent area, when presented with a forest with higher plant diversity. Studies like this open up the possibility that perhaps human expansion and need does not always have to conflict with natural systems: rather than forcing Western models of population control and livelihood bans on people groups who do rely on unsustainable models for survival, presenting integrative planting-focused solutions may allow humans to manage and even improve natural habitats in predictable, fruitful ways. Even for those of us in non-indigenous communities, promoting dense local tree growth in our own backyards can attract new animal habitat and bring the excitement of the wilderness to us—how much carbon cost do we expend in our wilderness travel, anyway?
Frankly, we don’t know what we could be missing out by eating the woods. Even a survey of forest-dwelling indigenous gatherers in Cameroon found the average human there ate only 12 species of edible plants in a woodland that grows 91; how much more food is everyone else ignoring in countries where we put all our faith into crop after crop of bananas, corn, and other dangerously disease-susceptible genetically-identical monocultures? Every primary care physician has encountered a patient unwilling to incorporate more plant mass into their diet because “I don’t like vegetables”, but the average patient consumes only between three and fourteen kinds of plants in their life —meanwhile food scientists like Bruce French from Food Plants International have cataloged over 30,000 edible species. It’s impossible for a person to truly not like vegetables when she really hasn’t tried even a statistically significant fraction of the plants available. Increasing the biodiversity in our diets also replenishes the biodiversity in the environment: “if people eat it, farmers will grow it.” Replacing grassy city parks with food forests could bring exciting new greens to the metropolitan food deserts, bypassing patient anxiety about “gross vegetables” to ultimately improve hypertensive and cardiac outcomes.
There has never been a better time than now to become involved in personal food forestry. Model food forests have already begun sprouting across the nation, from San Antonio to Atlanta and beyond. The USDA offers guidance on tree planting even in urban and suburban environments, and more robust resources such as the Permaculture Research Center of Australia contain libraries of hundreds of articles, interviews, and videos for almost all biomes. One Community Global offers a fantastic species by species breakdown of how to start your food forest, and if OCG isn’t relevant to your location, other large agricultural surveys evaluating underutilized plant species have already been performed the world over, from the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest to your state—sometimes it’s simply a matter of picking a new local plant and letting it live in your lawn. On a larger scale, the US runs a community forest grant program for nonprofits, tribal leaders, and local governments in which the federal government will pay half the cost of new forest development: interested WMS members may consider discussing food forest strategies with their local officials to apply to this program. Other WMS members more involved with their national parks can also encourage park officials to support development of nutritionally-dense local species in existing forests and to allow regulated food-gathering activities in season to fight food disparity. Don’t leave it all to the experts, however: if health activists really want to avoid tragedy of the commons, we need a societal revolution on the individual level—replacing lawns with personal food forests—to create a more food-sustainable, disaster-proof food system than community forests. After all, if everyone has food access in their own yard, power becomes decentralized rather than sequestered in the hands of ever-changing governments. And health activists experiencing opposition to big projects in their local community may garner support by demonstrating “proof of concept” in that little front yard. Ultimately, homeowners’ associations and landlords will not relinquish their obsession with the sacred green lawn unless someone challenges them.
So it could be that the bravest thing you can do for human health during the climate crisis is simply the same thing we were all taught on Earth Day as children—the same thing even ancient books like the Talmud say you should do to leave a legacy.
It could be that the best thing you can do for human health today is simply plant a tree.
Image 1. Certain species of pine—often an underutilized food species—produce a delicious tea. You may not be able to bring the Grand Canyon to your home, but you can create your own valuable wilderness biome through food forestry. Image credit: Jen Finelli.