Food & Water featured

Can we grow enough food?

April 10, 2023

Last March I did some very rough calculations to see if it is possible to feed eight billion people without further turning this planet into a monoculture of humans. While these figures are in no way admissible in peer-reviewed publishing, I did conclude that it is possible to sustainably grow enough food on one acre to feed 16 people. This means we can very easily feed every person on the planet using no more than about 500 million acres, which is roughly 1/9th of what is officially in agricultural production today. So we can certainly feed ourselves while cutting back on our land usage if that is a goal. (I am not completely in the re-wilding camp because I’m not sure that there is a ‘wild’ that does not include humans — nor is there a human that does not include the ‘wild’. But I’ll concede the need to allow other beings a bit of space, so pulling back on land use where we can seems like a good idea.) In any case, we can feed everybody. We don’t do that because the goal of agriculture is not to feed people but to make money.

We’ve long known that hunger is a result of our destructive economic systems, not a reflection of Earth’s capacity. But sometimes we get confused between what counts as agriculture and what counts as food production. Most agriculture is not feeding people. Over seventy percent of what humans eat is grown outside our system of conventional agriculture. Yet nearly three quarters of agriculturally productive land is dedicated to this conventional agriculture. A bit over one fourth of the world’s agriculturally productive land is producing three fourths of the food humans eat.

We could turn just a bit of that land that is currently under industrial agriculture over to those who actually produce food and have food and room to spare. For that matter, we could reduce our land use by simply eliminating half of industrial agriculture, and it would have negligible effects on the availability of food — though it would have devastating effects on our economic systems. On the other hand, actual food production is nearly invisible when viewed through an economic lens. Much never enters the market, generating no revenues and adding nothing to GNP. It creates little waste or subsidiary industry (for example, the production of costly tools to support expansive farms). Real food production is barely even monetized. It’s goal is to keep humans healthy and whole, not increase wealth through extraction. Real food production does not generate profit; it generates human well-being, which is the opposite of capitalism’s need for a maximized market of needy people with money and little else.

In any case, real food production can easily feed all of humanity with no increase in land use. The caveat to to this is that we have a bit of a distribution problem. We have the land to spare, but we don’t have people to farm that land. Conversely, where there are abundant people, there isn’t much land. And just to fully braid up that knot, the land that could be farmed is owned, mostly by those engaged in industrial scale agriculture. If we were to change our food system focus to producing food instead of profit we would need to transfer land rights to the people who work the land — and then move a large number of people so they can work it.

Industrial agriculture does one thing well: it uses industrial levels of oil and petrochemicals to bring hundreds of acres under production for each farmer — for example, an average size farm in Kansas is 781 acres — and this is how it has to be. This large scale is the only way to generate anything, food or profit, using industrial techniques. Say that we convert one average farm in Kansas into smaller, human-scale plots that will be used to feed people, not grow money. It is unlikely that these small-scale enterprises are going to generate revenue streams that enable them to afford energy slaves and expensive pest control, fertilizers and machinery and seed bred to endure this abiotic regimen, even if they wanted to continue using such destructive farming techniques. But without those destructive industrial farming techniques, there is much more need for labor to do all that work. So more people will be needed to do the work that industrial agriculture accomplishes through oil. This means that while one of today’s farms might have the potential to feed tens of thousands of people in ecologically viable ways, it can only reach that potential if there are several hundred more people farming it.

Currently, the US has about 894,000,000 acres under production. I am assuming that nearly all of that is industrial agriculture (even if some of it might be large-scale ‘organic’). Obviously, if one acre can feed 16 people, that’s quite a bit more farming land than is needed in the US. But even if we halve that amount of land, breaking it into plots that can be farmed without the large revenue streams necessary to industrial agriculture, we’d need most of the population of the US to be working on those farms. We’d need to empty out the cities so that there is sufficient labor to produce food.

Now, this is possible. This is how all humans used to live and how most of today’s humans who eat from ‘unconventional’ farms still live. On the farm. Supplying themselves from the land that they work. This is human normal. However, a bit over half of the world’s population now lives far from farmland, and in the US, that figure is 83%. Only 17% of the US population lives where there is land to farm. This is patently not a large enough agricultural workforce to accomplish the work done by our energy slaves — the energy slaves that will not exist in the very near future.

But how do we move that many people? As far as I can see, there are no plans to accommodate migration from cities to rural areas, nor even suburban areas. There is not even any discussion. It’s not on the table at all.

So given that it isn’t happening, let’s see how we might work with this population distribution. Say we leave people in the cities. This means we don’t break farms into smaller portions; we continue to farm at industrial scale, and simply focus that production on feeding people. The first problem that arises is that we need to remove food production from the market-based economy somehow, or we will just be continuing with the current system in which we grow money and many people go hungry. Let’s say we do that. Would it then be possible to produce food using industrial techniques?

Intuitively, given that it has not yet proven to be true, I’d say no. But let’s think about it. Think about what industrial techniques produce — one crop, usually some sort of annual that can be harvested by machine, that can be stored a long while, and that can be shipped large distances. You can’t use a combine on the veg patch. Industrial farming produces huge volumes of a very limited number of crops, maybe just one or two per farm, not at all a healthy, balanced diet. To grow more of that healthy diet, to diversify the farm, is to break it into plots that are difficult and costly to manage with industrial scale inputs and machinery and a very small labor pool. This is why automated farming does not produce a balanced diet and why, globally, we rely on small farms for a substantial portion of our bodily needs. This is also why we, in the US, have hoards of migrant workers in the places where we grow things other than grain. Industrial farming can’t sow, cultivate, or harvest most of the plants that we rely upon for balanced nutrition. The plant products that fill much of the supermarket come from the work of human hands. Because industrial farming does not produce food — that’s not its goal — it produces money.

So that doesn’t seem like a good plan. Perhaps, let’s think about leaving people in cities and bringing the small farms to them. (Humor me…) It is possible to produce food in urban environments though there is a good deal of remediation needed to make those urban environments food-safe. However, there just isn’t enough soil (nor water, nor sunlight, but let’s stick to soil). If New York City removed about half of its buildings and roads and diligently cleaned up all the toxic soil, the people who lived there could feed themselves. But it is hard to see where they would live. It is also hard to see how the city would continue to function if the majority of its population was focused on growing food. And finally, it seems rather senseless to put all that effort into turning a city into a farm, displacing half or more of its population and destroying much of its infrastructure, when it would be cheaper and easier — and probably less disruptive and toxic — to just move people to farmland. (And that’s not even adding sea level change and increasingly energetic storms into the equation…)

So why isn’t this discussed? I believe it is mainly due to our overwhelming state of ignorance on everything to do with food. This, in turn, is rooted in denial. We refuse to see the natural world and our own place embedded within it. We think we have engineered our recent material successes when we’ve just squandered a one-time natural windfall. We think our cleverness has rendered us independent of biology when we’ve only shifted many of our dependencies elsewhere so that we don’t have to see them. And most importantly, we seem to think that this life is not all that we get, that we can destroy everything in this world because we’re all heading off to some benevolent eternity. All these notions make it very difficult to comprehend the inherently reciprocal relationships around food. So we do nothing to accommodate those relationships — including accommodating the production of our own food. It is very hard to move large numbers of people. This is a scary thing. But it is going to be even harder to feed those large numbers as we both run out of cheap oil and run up against the limits of how much of it we can burn and still live in viable ecosystems.

I think this is the most terrifying prospect for the future of humans in my country. We, who have used up the most of this world’s resources to create unimaginable levels of symbolic wealth, will very shortly be unable to feed ourselves. All the crises that make headlines today will not only not matter, they will vanish when that 83% of the people who live here are hungry. It won’t even be true that hoards of bearded jerks with guns will fan out into the countryside, creating mini-empires for themselves. Because they can’t feed themselves and wield guns at the same time. They probably can’t feed themselves at all, given that producing a subsistence of food is a difficult skill practiced by a vanishingly small number of people these days. In any case, who are they going to compel with those guns? Most of the people they could force into labor will still be packed into cities and starving. (I’ve always balked at the sheer improbability of a Mad Max world, in which most of the planet is empty desert and a small remnant of humanity spends all its energy driving around killing each other — apparently on stomachs and truck engines that run on air…)

And don’t think that the rich will manage to rise above this hunger, because this is not a problem that can be solved with money. It won’t matter how much land they own, nor even how much oil they burn, they will not be able to produce a healthy diet without human labor. And if the erstwhile wealthy move poorer urbanites out of the cities to work the lands, how long will those new farmers continue to take payment from the rich in exchange for a portion of the food they produce? For that matter, how long will any food be shipped to the cities at all when food supplies are constrained? Money loses its value in direct proportion to the food supply. Those who are considered rich today will have nothing of value to trade for food. When food is running low, the person with money and no food ceases to be rich.

This is another thing that is not discussed anywhere. Of course, the wealthy either can’t see this inherent weakness in their world or can and are doing everything they can to hide it. But why do the rest of us not call them on it? Why do we assume that wealth will continue to mean the same things in a critically strained world as it does today? Why do we see all the basic patterns of population and wealth distribution in our future when those patterns are already dysfunctional and will soon directly threaten our very survival? Nothing of our system is going to work when we can no longer feed ourselves. The trends are already there to see. Shouldn’t we acknowledge this basic truth and start moving to accommodate it? Maybe literally…

I was thinking about all this as I stared at my broken jungle and pictured it as someone fifty years in the future will see it — given that I’m successful in my remediation plans. Here is a quarter acre that does not count as either wild or agriculturally productive land. It’s space that has been turned into waste. At one time it had been a garden, with fruit trees and a leveled area for veg. But for several decades, it’s been allowed to grow up with invasive and aggressive plants that are mostly useless, not only to humans but to most of the life-forms native to my part of the world. It is also down-slope from a road that receives roughly an ocean’s worth of salt each winter, along with other road chemicals and whatever wastes are dumped into the gutters by my neighbors.

My remediation work will include more than merely planting a healthier mix of trees and perennials. I need to convince people to treat this land differently, to treat it exactly as they do their kitchens. You don’t pour acrylic paint and road salt on the same countertops where you prep food. To accomplish that mental transformation, I think I need to convince people that producing food in this space is necessary, that it is desirable to locate your food production where you live. And to do that, I think people are going to need to accept that our current system of food production does not work well and will soon not work at all.

This is less true in Vermont, which is one of the reasons I live here. Our food production system is already mostly human scale and produces most of the foods we need for nutritional balance. My quarter acre is not strictly necessary. But even in Vermont, there are people who consider food production to be something that happens elsewhere, mostly by the magic of oil. Not coincidentally, these are the same kind of people who show no concern for the toxic waste they shed into their own surroundings. And these are people who live surrounded by farms. How much harder is it going to be to convince urbanites that there is no magic? That we’ve come to the end of industrial agriculture. That we all need to be involved in our own food production. How much harder is it going to be to convince them that they — we — need to create a world without urbanites? Simply in order to avoid mass starvation.

So I’m talking about gardening and storing food. About planning to meet needs rather than generate profits or even maximize yield. My garden goals are focused on optimizing biomass not product, on growing what will sustainably feed the greatest population of life-forms possible. My garden is about revealing and supporting interdependency. And my garden is visible. It is right in the middle of my town. It is right at the center of this blog. In this way, I hope to demonstrate what I think is essential to our survival — that we each have a small plot of land that feeds us with the help of our labor.

We, in the US, can feed ourselves without destroying our planet and therefore ourselves — but only if we change everything about the ways that we go about feeding ourselves today. We can’t have most of the people in this country separated from food production. We can’t have most of the people in this country living where food production is impossible. We can’t continue to think that our wealth or our cleverness is somehow going to fix these flaws. We can’t plan on monetary wealth existing in the future at all. We can only plan on gardens and food forests and farms, all full of people who feed themselves.

©Elizabeth Anker 2023


Teaser photo credit: By K. Shuyler – Beacon Food Forest ground-making, CC BY 2.0,

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: local food production, rebuilding a resilient food and farming system