Food & Water featured

Q: Can (small-scale) farming feed Britain (or Tokyo, or the world)? A: Yes … (probably)

February 29, 2024

The gist of my last two posts is that manufactured microbial food isn’t plausible on energetic grounds as a mass food approach unless there’s a rapid and large expansion of available global energy, and that the more likely future trend is in the opposite direction – towards less energy. Like it or not, I think that means a future of low-energy agrarian localism.

The main reason I try to prepare the ground for agrarian localism in my writing is therefore because I don’t think we have much choice. I fear that the transition to agrarian localism might be troubled and potentially violent. However, I fear the transition to every other possible future might also be troubled and potentially violent, only more so. The quicker we can lean into a small farm future, the less troubled and violent it’s likely to be.

I do think additionally that aspects of life in small farm societies can be congenial and rewarding. That’s an unorthodox view nowadays, albeit largely because of modernist ideologies that have propagandized fiercely against localism and agrarianism and found endless ways of ridiculing people who advocate for them. I don’t think these modernist ideologies are set to last much longer into the future or are useful in the present world-historical moment, so I believe it’s important to contest them and try to build longer-term agrarian cultures that are fit for present times.

A small farm future out of practical necessity, then, but also one evincing positive cultural possibilities. But practical necessity is the critical driver.

Is agrarian localism practically feasible in the present world, though? Here’s a sample of some of the pushbacks I’ve got on this point recently on social media:

Mate you’ve still got to figure out how you feed ~70 million people in the UK with small farms, I’d pipe down

The same writer added:

I just wanna see a simple sum where you figure out how much you produce per acre and scale that to 70mil people doing it. Can you actually feed people and not take over the entire land surface of the UK?

Mixing the practical with the cultural/ideological, another writer said:

Chris Smaje needs to spend some time looking at the low input low output agricultural systems in sub Saharan Africa to understand the realities of the rural economy.

Okay, let’s run with these.

Simple sums, framing traps and misplaced assumptions

The simple sum of the amount of food that agrarian localism can produce in Britain is … whoa, hold your horses. I’m going to give a number later in this post, but the number needs some context first. Numbers always need some context first.

I’ll kick off by saying that I sense a framing trap here along the lines described by language philosopher George Lakoff, whereby an antagonist traps you into their way of formulating an issue that you don’t share. The context for the ‘pipe down’ comment was my argument with a certain prominent journalist who favours manufactured microbial food, which he believes spells the end of most agriculture. I and others have shown that several of this journalist’s key numbers in support of his arguments are wrong, but as far as I know he hasn’t responded to these critiques. Nobody has shown that the existing high-energy food system in Britain, or higher-energy alternatives to it like manufactured microbial food, will be able to feed Britain’s population long-term. Yet I’m the one who’s supposed to pipe down? It’s reasonable to ask how agrarian localism can feed current and future populations – but only if you ask the same question of the business-as-usual, high-energy industrial agriculturists and the ecomodernists. And on that score, they’re not piping up.

Possibly, the notion that it’s especially difficult to feed people from small, low-energy farms stems from some misconceptions about the existing food system. If you survey many modern arable landscapes with their big fields and giant, high-tech machinery, it’s certainly easy to think that small farms couldn’t match their productivity.

But the reality of contemporary industrial farming is overproduction, and waste (Glenn Davis Stone’s book The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World discusses this in detail). Those fields and machines aren’t designed to meet the needs of local communities for healthy food. They’re designed to provide healthy profits, principally for input manufacturers and food-system middlemen. Generally, they do that by minimizing costs per product, including labour costs (hence the big machines), not by maximizing yields per hectare.

In fact, particularly in low-income countries, research often finds an inverse relationship between farm scale and per hectare food productivity (discussed in my book, A Small Farm Future). Where that’s not the case, the higher yields of the larger farms usually result from higher inputs such as irrigation water, synthetic fertilizer or pesticides – and the non-sustainability of such inputs on climate, energy and biodiversity grounds is no longer in question.

Hence a rule of thumb that might surprise some: per hectare food productivity may vary in either direction with farm scale, but on the whole it can be treated as scale neutral. There’s no special reason to suppose that small farms will produce less food in aggregate by virtue of their size. In fact, there are reasons to suppose they’ll produce more.

Looking at farmland in a country like the UK, it’s easy to assume that small farms are a minor and bygone part of the global food system, but this simply isn’t the case globally. Exactly how much of the world’s food they produce is hotly contested (see for example herehere and here). The paper by Knezevic et al that I just linked suggests that over 50 percent of food worldwide is produced by farms of 10 hectares or less on about 40 percent of global farmland (note the greater per hectare productivity). Even a much-criticized paper by Ricciardi et al suggesting that very small farms contribute a relatively small share of total global food production concurs that such farms are proportionately higher yielding and less wasteful than larger farms. So, to reiterate, there’s no inherent reason to suppose that small farms can’t feed us – even in the UK.

A final bit of context. It’s quite easy to take national statistics on farmland area and on yields of major commodity crops like wheat or maize to compute figures such as the amount of calories or protein these crops produce per hectare. It’s not so easy to compute plausible figures for a population’s potential cultivation efforts across a whole country – farmers, market gardeners, smallholders, allotmenteers, backyard growers and gardening guerillas cultivating verges, embankments and building lots with scores of different nutritious crops, while cleverly integrating livestock into this ecological flow. Bear in mind also that livestock are not just a source of fat or protein – they provide so much more in low-energy small farm systems, including a great deal of farm labour. If you’re going to compute their land costs, you’ll need to do the same for the tractors, agro-chemicals and fuels in the industrial system. In general, I think these unquantified and largely unquantifiable potential margins lead to underestimation in the potential of agrarian localism to feed us.

Can agrarian localism feed Britain?

Anyway, even bearing all that in mind, the question remains – can Britain feed itself with small-scale, agroecological methods? I’ve crunched a few numbers on that in both my books, and so did Simon Fairlie in his excellent 2010 book Meat. The answer is a pretty clear yes.

In the rough and ready exercise I undertook in Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, I calculated that in Britain we could grow just under 40,000 MJ of food energy and just under 340kg of edible protein per hectare per year using organic methods without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, which would translate to using about 32 percent of Britain’s existing farmland to feed its 67 million population. There are many further complexities I could discuss, but my man wanted a simple figure and there it is. You’re not going to get coffee, bananas or beefburgers on demand from my system, but you can’t always get what you want in life … and that’s not always a bad thing.

Sometimes it surprises people to hear that Britain could feed itself, since that’s not something it’s actually achieved for a couple of centuries. That’s because it’s chosen not to, not because it can’t. The underlying ethos has been that we can buy what we need on global markets. I don’t think that’s a wise long-term bet.

Can agrarian localism feed Tokyo?

Well, that was easy. Let’s take on a tougher challenge. Can Tokyo – the largest metropolitan area in the world – feed itself with local food? This was the question Jeremy Williams posed in his largely negative review of my book.

The answer is no, right? There isn’t enough space to grow local, agroecological food for Tokyo’s 39 million people within the metropolitan area where they live. And there isn’t the energy to produce manufactured microbial food for them either. That leaves them reliant on importing their food from other places via industrial supply chains.

If those truths lead you to score your card Industrial food chain 1, Local food web 0, I think you’re missing something vitally important. I mean whose food system vision really has a problem here? I’ve been clear in my analysis that present forms of urbanism are an outcome of cheap fossil energy and are unlikely to survive unscathed in the energy squeeze to come. I think the onus is on people who expect to see the Tokyos of this world to keep sailing on their merry way and chowing down on the products of global food commodity supply chains to explain how that’s going to remain feasible.

Now, there are people who want to position me as some kind of uncaring anti-urbanist ghoul on this point – ‘Ha! No food, water or sewerage in Tokyo – die suckers’ or whatever. I don’t think that can reasonably be justified with reference to anything I’ve actually said or written. The fact that we won’t be able to sustain present forms of urbanism is a godawful problem that our civilization has set up for itself. That problem is not, however, lessened by pretending it doesn’t exist or polemicising against those of us who are trying to draw attention to it. We need very urgently to be figuring out what to do about it instead of compounding the problem with hopium about manufactured microbial food, limitless solar electricity or the special ability of industrial supply chains to keep urban grocery shelves stocked.

Can agrarian localism feed the world?

Let’s briefly go large and ask if agrarian localism can feed the world. Let’s also go for context: this is another framing trap. But first to the question: I don’t know if agrarian localism can feed the world. Partly it’s because, as I’ve already said, I have no methodology to account for every ear of corn, every beet leaf and every other kind of food in all their magnificent variety that could be grown on every street corner, every lot, every roof and every field in cities, towns, villages and countrysides the world over. And partly it’s because I have no methodology to account for the impact of climate change, energy descent, water stress, soil loss and political strife that will affect small-scale farmers along with everyone else in the years to come. But the question is a framing trap because the same – in fact, generally worse – uncertainties apply mutatis mutandis to large-scale, industrial agriculture and every other kind of food production.

Still, as I mentioned above, small-scale farming currently supports more of the world’s population than industrial farming. It’s hard to see that finding reversing in the future. On the contrary, it seems likely to increase. And ultimately a good part of that increase will likely be carried by deurbanization and effective population movement from fiscally rich urban industrial-service economies to agriculturally rich rural agrarian-commercial economies. Seriously, we need to be talking about this and preparing for it, instead of ridiculing it.

The African gambit – and the Asian reply

Let me turn now to the statement that I need to spend time looking at low-input, low-output agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa to understand the realities of the rural economy.

Well, sub-Saharan Africa is a big place that an awful lot of people call home. It’s not just one thing – ‘the rural economy’. I’ve spent no more than a few days in sub-Saharan Africa myself, but I’ve been influenced by people who’ve spent a lot of time studying parts of it – Ester Boserup, Walter Rodney, Paul Richards, Robert Netting, Glenn Davis Stone, Million Belay to name a few. So I’ve certainly ‘looked’ at it. And I’ve been particularly influenced by Richards’ and Netting’s analyses of the ecological sophistication and economic dynamism of various West African agricultural societies.

It’s true there are some extremely impoverished small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who haven’t willingly chosen their lot. There are also other small farmers in happier situations. Small-scale farming and ‘the’ rural economy is a many and varied thing. In the case of the poorest farmers, it’s worth pondering the reasons for their misery, some of which don’t reflect too well on the past and present actions of the richer countries of the world, and don’t have all that much to do with the rural economy of sub-Saharan Africa per se.

What I think must really be resisted is invoking poor African farmers generically as some kind of archetype of the small farmer standing outside of modern history that’s supposed to prove the inherent misery of low-energy agrarianism. I’ve noticed quite a lot of this ‘African gambit’ lately in narratives around manufactured food. It’s an example of the agricultural improvement ideology I criticized in Saying NO… (and, for that matter, in A Small Farm Future). Its history is an ignoble one, deeply enmeshed with colonialism and expropriation, with its readymade argument that dispossessing people of their land in favour of more ‘efficient’ food technologies imported from elsewhere is in their own best interests. When I was researching Saying NO… more than one food sovereignty activist described the ‘farm-free’ microbial food idea to me as a white saviour narrative, and I think they have a point. It’s worth listening to some African agrarian voices.

But maybe I can develop my wider point by switching the focus from Africa to Asia – specifically to Taiwan, South Korea and China. There are plausible arguments that suggest the unyoking of small farmers from stifling appropriations played a big part in kickstarting the rising wealth of each of these countries during the 20th century (see for example Andro Linklater’s Owning the Earth, and Lyn White’s Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change). Given the challenges before us in gracefully contracting the global economy, the problem may be less the supposedly low output and misery of the small farmer so much as their high output and economic dynamism. It’s not a problem I’m going to lose too much sleep over in the present state of the world, but it’s worth being aware that world economies can and have been built on local agricultural systems. My hope is that local economies can and will be built on them in the future, because frankly I don’t see too many other options.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.