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Why do we grow food?

April 12, 2023

We have to produce more to feed a growing population – but what if it is the other way round?

Just before he passed away, professor Mats Morell at Uppsala University completed a meticulous account of the development of agriculture in the two Swedish counties Uppsala (where I also happen to live) and Västmanland (next door), Agrar revolution, jordbruksproduktionen i Uppsala och Västmanlands län 1750-1920Until the start of the 19th century there was little growth, either in value or yield per hectare. But then things changed, first slowly and then rapidly in the period 1850-1900. Until then the farming system was based on permanent meadows harvested for hay and grazing of the vast forests, which were not anything like the dense production forests we have now, but an open understory with plenty of food to eat. This was combined with infields where farmers grew one or two kinds of grains (barley, rye, oats or wheat depending on where in Sweden they were) and occasionally some peas or turnips, potatoes were also slowly introduced. The few vegetables and fruit consumed were in gardens close to the house.

The productivity of the infields were supported by animal manure originating from the permanent meadows and forests. The system is often described with “The meadow is the mother of the field”. Despite this permanent inflow of nutrients the yields were not low and fields were in fallow every second year or every third year, to regain vitality.

During the 19th century, this system was gradually replaced by a crop rotation system where the cultivation of fodder crops, primarily hay, was mixed with the production of the precious grains. Through the introduction of red and alsike clover (named after a village in the county of Uppsala) into the seeded hayfields, atmospheric nitrogen was drawn down. Nitrogen was in most cases the limiting factor of production – this was 100 years before the large scale introduction of artificial fertilizers, so the biological nitrogen fixation increased the production of fodder and grain alike and many meadows were plowed and converted to arable land.

In addition, people also worked more and a longer time of the year. The increased productivity of the better fed animals meant that there was more work with milking, making butter and cheese, breeding piglets etc. Potatoes were planted after spring planting of grains and harvested after the grain harvest. In addition to improved food availability, many farmers took up production of brännvin (vodka) to transform the potatoes to a higher value product. Morell wasn’t able to map how many more hours people worked, but it was clearly substantial.

The end result was dramatically increased production where the total quantity of food tripled under the 19th century. The population also grew, but food availability was always several steps ahead of the increase of population. The total production of calories per person and day in Uppsala county went from 4,000 kcal in the beginning of the century to more than 5,000 kcal in the end, and in Västmanland from 3,000 to 4,000. The production and consumption of animal products also increased and was even higher than today at the end of the century (per capita of course, not in absolute numbers). There is thus no support whatsoever that this agrarian revolution was driven by need to feed more mouths.

Morell gives no single explanation for why this happened but he points to political and social changes (land reforms, changes in taxation etc) which gave farmers more incentives to produce more. He also hints to the market and technological conditions, which in my view can explain most. The emerging industrialization based on mining and iron works in Sweden made it possible for farmers to purchase iron spades, nails, hoes, axes etc. which both increased their productivity and gave them more time to farm instead of making all those tools themselves. But in order buy these new things, they needed to sell more stuff from the farm, and the emerging industrial centers provided markets for their goods. In the next stage, also textiles and shoes were purchased and export markets developed for grain and butter (Sweden had large exports of oats for the horses of Great Britain and in periods also butter exports). By and large, it was the integration of farming into markets that was both the main driver and enabler of this increase in productivity.

Also if we look further back into the misty history, if you think about it, it is quite obvious that farming didn’t develop because of a growing population. In my book Global Eating Disorder (2016), I describe it like this:

There are no strong reasons to believe that human beings were forced to farm in order to feed an increasingly hungry population. It was rather improved methods of hunting and fishing or life in particu­larly rich border zones, such as an oasis or coastal flats, which enabled people to settle in certain places. The Norte Chico settlements just north of today’s Lima in Peru are interesting, and perhaps odd examples. These are more than 5000 years old, the oldest known civilization in the Americas. The Carla-Supe people who lived there were ostensibly engaged in farming. But they did not grow staple foods; instead they grew cotton and gourds, needed primarily for their extensive fishing. The cotton was used to make nets and lines, while the gourds were used as floats.

The first farmers could not feed themselves from farming alone to begin with; if they had tried, they would have starved to death. On the contrary, farming was almost certainly developed by settled people who still got most of their food through the old ways of hunting and gathering. They farmed certain crops that were uncommon and difficult to find, such as medicinal herbs, or crops that they fancied a lot, more like gardening. In Mesoamerica, domestication of maize, beans and pepper can be traced back ten thousand years, but it was not until five thousand years later that domesticated plants and animals dominated the food system, a clear indication that a foraging culture can be competitive with farming, even under conditions which are conducive to farming. As settled populations grew, farming changed from being an opportunity to a necessity.

This view of how farming developed is also strongly supported by the accounts of David Graeber and David Wengrow in their work book The Dawn of Everything (even if their focus is rather that there was no inevitable link between agriculture are more hierarchical societies).

The narrative that we must produce more to feed a growing population is still very strong. In 2009, FAO made the much publicized statement that ”feeding a world population of 9.1 billion people in 2050 would require raising overall food production by some 70 percent between 2005/07 and 2050. Production in the developing countries would need to almost double.” This has been repeated again and again so many times that it has become an undisputable fact. Not only was the factual basis for the statement not correct, it also is based on the same flawed assumption, that more food is produced to feed the growing population. In fact, the world’s agriculture system can already today feed 9.1 billion people if food was fairly distributed. I elaborated on this in a series of articles recently (the first one is found here).

It is tempting to conclude the opposite; that populations grow because the availability of food grows. Without hesitation, we take that view on the population dynamics of other species. But the development of populations in the wealthy countries negates that as populations are stagnant or even shrinking in many of the wealthy countries. So we need to look for one or more other explanations, possibly driving both population and food production at the same time. I will explore that in my next post.



Teaser photo credit: Agriculture terraces were (and are) common in the austere, high-elevation environment of the Andes. By –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: feeding the world, food production, global population, history of agriculture