7 billion for dinner? Here’s how to feed them

ImageAt this time of year – the Thanksgiving season – more Americans are celebrating conspicuous food consumption than giving thanks for a successful harvest.  But in either case it’s a good time to consider how to feed not only America’s population in the years to come, but the rest of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants.

Most people – even many of those who support small farms and eat organic food – believe that there’s no way to feed the global population without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fossil fuels, biotechnology, heavy equipment, and the rest of the agribusiness arsenal.  In fact, the 2013 World Food Prize  – which supposedly recognizes individuals who have improved “the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world” – went to three stalwarts of the biotech industry, including the Technology Officer of Monsanto and a lead scientist at Syngenta.[1]  (This should have surprised no one, since the sponsors of the Prize include many of the world’s largest food corporations, from Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Pepsico, and Dupont Pioneer to the aforementioned Monsanto and Syngenta.)[2]

But the question really comes down to this: on the planet’s limited stock of arable land, how can the most food be produced?  There’s no doubt where ISEC stands:  in The Economics of Happiness we point out that “small locally-adapted farms … produce substantially more food per acre” than industrial farms.  Vandana Shiva gave substance to that claim, pointing out that “research has shown, again and again and again, that bio-diverse small farms using ecological inputs produce three to five times more food than industrial monocultures.”

This is not a new revelation. Our book Bringing the Food Economy Home cited a 1999 study showing that small farmers worldwide produce from 2 to 10 times more per unit area than do larger, corporate farms.[3] Nonetheless, there is a persistent myth that industrial agriculture is vastly more efficient than smaller, more diversified alternatives.

This belief rests entirely on a perverse definition of “efficiency”.  The efficiency touted by the promoters of industrial agriculture has nothing to do with producing large amounts of food on a limited landbase: it’s about producing the highest yield with the least amount of human labor.  In other words, industrial agriculture is not more efficient at producing food, it’s more efficient at eliminating farmers and farmworkers.  If the goal isn’t to pull people off the land but to produce the most food, then small-scale, locally-adapted, diversified farms are the way to go.

Here’s a real-life example of small-farm productivity from our place here in northern Vermont.  It’s less of a farm than a homestead, since most of the food we produce is consumed by our family of four or exchanged in an informal barter network with neighbors – though we do have a small “cash crop” of blueberries that we sell at a nearby farmers’ market and to a couple of local stores.  Our garden area, including the blueberry patch, is less than a quarter-acre – large by backyard garden standards but miniscule in comparison to industrial monocultures.

The climate here isn’t particularly favorable (this year we had 4 inches of snow at the end of May, and a frost by early September) but we always grow a huge supply of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, beans, peas, scallions, summer squash, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, kale, asparagus, and more.  Along with the potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, garlic, winter squash, and celeriac in storage, we freeze, dry, can, or ferment enough other vegetables to meet our needs until the following year; frozen or preserved blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples and pears, meanwhile, provide us with copious amounts of fruit.  Much of what we don’t raise ourselves can be supplied by exchanging surpluses with neighbors.

I’m not saying this to boast since we’re not particularly exceptional: lots of people in this part of Vermont have gardens even more productive than our own, and putting up food is a tradition that goes back many generations.   What’s more, our productivity would be dwarfed by that of small farmers in parts of the world – like Ladakh – where location-specific knowledge,  building on centuries of direct experience of local conditions, is still intact. My point is only that a lot of food can be grown in a small area using nothing but on-farm inputs and human labor.  It’s very labor-intensive (just ask anyone in my family) but the food is not only plentiful, it’s nutrient-dense, healthy, and delicious.

Yet this doesn’t explain why smaller farms are more productive per acre than industrial monocultures.  One reason is that diversified farms can use the same space to grow multiple crops.  In our garden, for example, spinach, lettuce, and scallions grow from the same soil as the peas climbing the fencing above; beans grow between the rows of potatoes, and the vines from squash and cucumber plants quickly cover not only the garden paths but climb up the corn stalks and weave between the onions.  And since we use only hand tools in the garden, we don’t need to leave space for the tires of tractors and other mechanized farm equipment.

On our farm, even the garden weeds can be considered a crop.  Some of them – dandelions, lamb’s quarter, purslane, and others – are themselves edible and add to our diet.  More importantly, the weeds we pull from the garden can be fed to our goats and cows, who turn them into milk and meat.  In an industrial monoculture there are no animals to feed this volunteer crop to: instead, it is eliminated by chemical herbicides.  Other garden “wastes” – corn husks, onion tops, empty bean pods, overripe blueberries, and so on – similarly become valuable feed for our animals, adding to the net productivity of the farm.  There’s even a use for the “harmful” insects in our garden ecosystem. Rather than spray pesticides to get rid of cut worms, Japanese beetles, grubs, or potato beetle larvae, we remove them by hand and feed them to our laying hens, which convert this protein-rich food into eggs.

Another reason small farms are more productive is that the machinery on which industrial farms depend can never be as knowledgeable or as careful as humans.  When our family picks blueberries, for example, we know what each of the several varieties we grow look and feel like when they’re perfectly ripe:  berries that aren’t quite ready will be left for the next day’s picking, when they’ll be larger, juicier and better-tasting.  But the mechanical blueberry-picking machines favored by large growers can’t make such distinctions: they simply shake the entire bush and catch whatever berries drop.  A University of Florida study showed that because mechanical harvesting bruises many good berries and harvests many under-ripe ones, it yields 13 percent less marketable fruit, with “significant [additional] losses from blue and immature fruit dropped on the ground by the harvester.”[4]  In other words, farms that use machines to pick their fruit get smaller harvests; nonetheless, they are described as more “efficient” because they use less human labor.[5]

When we planted our blueberries 15 years ago, we chose varieties that were well-suited to our farm’s particular soils and micro-climate. If we had intended to use a mechanical harvester, however, we would have chosen different varieties – those that are better at withstanding machine harvesting – in order to minimize harvesting losses.  All industrial-scale farmers are forced to make similar choices; what’s more, they’re also forced to choose from among the handful of crops and varieties favored by global markets.  The result is that large farms tend to be adapted to technology and the market, while small farms are adapted to nature. The former may produce the most money, but the latter produce the most food.

By choice, necessity, or both, small farmers around the world make the best possible use of the land available to them.  When they don’t rely on off-farm inputs, their “footprint” is often just the land itself.  The footprint of industrial monocultures, by contrast, includes not only the land under cultivation, but the land from which their mineral inputs are mined, the factories where the herbicides and pesticides are manufactured, the labs where their biotech seeds are developed, and the vast global infrastructure of fossil fuels and highways needed to run their massive equipment and to transport the end product to global markets.  On a finite planet, reducing all of these resource demands is critical.

Needless to say, labor-intensive small farms require a lot more farmers and farmworkers – a good thing in a world in which unemployment is a major problem.  They also use far less fossil-fuel energy – also a good thing.  Nonetheless, government policies continue to promote the further industrialization of agriculture – in part by subsidizing the cost of energy, which makes it cheaper to use machines than people. In the global South, government ‘development’ policies essentially pull millions of people – including some of the most productive farmers – off the land and dump them in urban slums. The result is both increased unemployment and farms that are less efficient in their use of land. In Wendell Berry’s apt phrase, those government policies “take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems”.[6]

So what’s the best way to feed 7 billion people?  With food from small, locally-adapted farms using ecological inputs, that’s how.

Learn more about this issue by listening to ISEC’s Local Bites podcast:

Local Bites Episode 2 – How to Feed the World? A Political Agroecological Approach

In this episode Local Bites host Brian Emerson interviews Dr. M. Jahi Chappell of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy on the question, “What kind of food and farming system do we need to feed a growing world population in an ecologically sustainable and socially just manner?”

Steven Gorelick is Managing Programs Director at the International Society for Ecology and Culture. He is the author of Small is Beautiful, Big is Subsidized, co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home, and co-director of The Economics of Happiness. His writings have been published in The Ecologist and Resurgence magazines. He frequently teaches and speaks on local economics around the US.


[3] See “The multiple functions and benefits of small farm agriculture in the context of global trade negotiations,” Institute for Food and Development Policy, Food First Policy Brief No. 4, 1999, 1. http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/policybs/pb4.html download here http://www.foodfirst.org/sites/www.foodfirst.org/file/pdf/pb4_0.pdf For more on this general topic, see: “‘Agroecology outperforms large-scale industrial farming for global food security,’ says UN expert” http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=10178 and “Productivity and Efficiency of Small and Large Farms in Moldova” http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/agsaaea06/21085.htm and “Industrial Agriculture and Small-scale Farming” http://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/industrial-agriculture-and-small-scale-farming/industrial-agriculture-and-small-scale-farming.html and UNCTAD’s 2013 Trade and Environment report, “Wake up before it is too late: make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate” http://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=666 and “Organic agriculture and the global food supply” http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1091304 and “Resource-conserving agriculture increases yields in developing countries” http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es051670d

[4] “Preliminary Studies of Mechanically Harvested Blueberries for Fresh Markets in Florida”, University of Florida, Gainesville. http://cetulare.ucanr.edu/files/168380.pdf

[5] As one blueberry grower put it, “When you go out in the field and you watch a machine pick, if you’re not used to it the first time, it looks like you’re dropping a lot on the ground. But if you weigh the cost of picking by hand against what you’re losing, it’s way better to pick by machine.”  Anne-Marie Vazzano, “Mechanical Blueberry Harvesting Can Save On Labor”, http://www.growingproduce.com/article/11058/mechanical-blueberry-harvesting-can-save-on-labor

[6] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977) p. 62.

25 thoughts on “7 billion for dinner? Here’s how to feed them

  1. Steven – You are right on the mark when you say that “small, locally-adapted farms using ecological inputs” are the best way to feed 7 billion. However, you won’t get very far in the scientific community unless you have numbers and a theory to hang them onto. This is why I use kilocalories as a “metric that crosses all platforms.” This is what David Pimentel at Cornell has been doing for the last 35 years, by the way. The difference between Pimentel, other researchers and myself is that I do the farming and share the data. It is all rigorous and doable by anyone. It just takes human labor – BUT the human organism is the most efficient engine we have.

    My EROI this year (2013) is 3.37 and I don’t have all my crops in. (In my maritime climate in the Pacific Northwest, I leave crops in the ground over winter and harvest as needed.) This year so far I have grown 7,886 pounds of food on .66 acres with 1000 hours of labor and 11.5 gallons of gas in my tiller (I don’t own a tractor). The energy value of the food I grew so far is 1.67M kilocalories, or enough to feed 1.80 people at 2500 kilocalories per day. With a regular farmer working 3000 hours per year, it is certainly possible to feed 5 people on 2 acres using my system. This is with an extremely diverse array of 60-80 crops and includes fruit, vegetables, dry beans and grain. [Meat is another story and there are many others working on this problem. We consume small amounts of meat, mostly for flavoring.]

    If you want a more in-depth look at my system, you can check out my book, The Laws of Physics Are On My Side (2013), available on Amazon. The book is one-third analysis of the overall problem of culture and energy (I am a biological anthropologist by training), and two-thirds solutions. I am also working on another book this winter and I hope to have it published (again on Amazon) by spring.

    Keep up the good work. Your grandchildren will thank you.

  2. Pingback: 7 billion for dinner? Here’s how to feed them | The Economics of Happiness | Clearing House for Environmental Course Material

  3. Walter, you’re fortunate to be able to leave crops in the ground over winter, but I’m sure there are pluses and minuses to every locale — another reason why food systems need to be adapted to place.

    Your analytical approach sounds very interesting, and I’ll definitely check out your book. But even if industrial-scale farming were more productive (which you and I agree is not the case) it’s a system that’s so dependent on inputs imported to the farm (water, fossil fuels, heavy equipment, etc.) that it’s doomed to fail sooner or later. It really makes no sense for society to continue putting our eggs in that basket, so to speak.

    Thanks for your work — my grandchildren will probably thank you as well.

  4. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  5. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  6. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  7. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  8. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  9. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  10. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  11. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  12. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  13. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  14. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  15. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  16. Pingback: Re: What’s more “efficient,” Big Ag or small farms? “Industrial agriculture is not more efficient in producing more food; it’s more efficient in eliminating farmers and farm workers.” | Exopermaculture

  17. Three problems with using humans instead of machines: a) high food prices to cover liveable wages with benefits for farm workers, b) finding workers who will do the work instead of a machine, and c) competing with industrial farms who produce cheaper food without employing humans to do hard labor. When the world runs out of oil, all this will take care of itself. In the meantime, I’m enjoying cheap food imported to my local grocery from around the world.

    • Dave, the reason all that imported food at your grocery store seems so cheap is that you (and the rest of us) pay massive amounts to subsidize it. I’m not only talking about farm subsidies, but also the tax breaks for energy and technology referred to in the blog, as well as the government funding for R&D into high-tech farming, and for the trade-based infrastructure that allows all that food to be transported around the world so ‘cheaply’. We’re also paying for the ignored or externalized costs of industrial food production and trade — loss of topsoil, depletion of groundwater, pesticide pollution, greenhouse gas emissions from unnecessary food trade, and so on. Changing those subsidies and accounting for those externalized costs would make food produced locally on small-scale farms cheaper than the imported industrial stuff at your grocery store. On the other hand, If we wait for the world to run out of oil rather than make those changes now, the planet will be a lot less liveable in the future.

    • Well Dave if a) we cannot pay livable wages to farmworkers or farmers, we are just exploiting them, are we not? How do you sleep at night if you think exploitation is right and good?

      Also, b) I was a migrant worker for 8 years in the western United States and there were plenty of “anglos” when I started in 1974, but considerably fewer when I left in 1982. The reason was wages did not keep pace with price increases of everything else. If greedy farmers (pressured by greedy consumers) would pay a living wage, there would be plenty of workers. The trope that “Americans are too lazy to work” is false. I know because I lived the life.

      Finally, c) the whole idea of postmodern agriculture is not to compete with industrial agriculture, which treats the soil as a factory – petroleum inputs in, commodities out. The idea of postmodern agriculture is to feed people at drastically reduced petroleum inputs. The only way to do this is with manual labor. Of course, this means YOU the consumer will have to pay more for your food. But since you now pay a pittance for your daily bread, that wouldn’t hurt you any.

      Notice how the whole argument hinges on the consumer paying more for food. If he/she does so, there are plenty of farmers like myself who can produce more. It is like an accordian. We can produce tons more food per acre (literally!) if we could just sell it for a fair price (while simultaneously conserving the soil, I might add). Since YOU the consumer will not pay a fair price to the farmer, why bother? Oh and by the way, food prices will climb dramatically anyway. Do you want to give that money to me, the small-scale producer, or to a corporation that just wastes it on more marketing and high salaries for top management? Your choice.

      • Not my choice. Most people will buy the least expensive, so that’s what will succeed, and that’s what will be available, so that’s what I buy in the free market. (And I sleep fine, because it’s beyond my personal control.) The only alternative is a controlled market, i.e. communism. In fact, you sound exactly like a 19th century Soviet Bolshevik Marxist-Leninist communist revolutionary, only your enemy is the private corporation instead of the Tsarist autocracy. People will pay what its worth and people will earn what it’s worth. The alternative is to give up freedsom. Good luck.

  18. LOL – So-called “Soviet Bolshevik Marxist-Leninist communist revolutionaries” were a 20th century phenomenon, not 19th. Besides, I have been dismissing Marx since 1968, so your ad hominem attack is far wide of your target.

    You seem to have missed the whole point of this discussion. Modern agriculture is not feeding the people we have now. It is not just a distribution problem any longer. It is a production problem, ergo prices will go up. Cheap food is on the way out. People will starve. The only way to feed people is through labor-intensive methods. Without petroleum supplies, which are in decline, the earth’s population will decline. It really is that simple. During this time period, your children and grandchildren will lead “adventurous” lives.

    • My apologies, I meant no ad hominem. I meant your argument sounds Bolshevic, with no disrespect to you yourself; and yes, it was late 19th century agitation and dialogue that lead to the early 20th century revolution, which is why your discussion sounds 19th century. But nevertheless, a controlled market revolution may indeed eventually result from current free market exhaustion. Yes, the future generations will live “adventurous” lives, but so did previous generations. Ours is a generation that has enjoyed prosperity for so long we forget what it was like to chop wood. But the best estimate of the future is the past. The point of this discussion is not whether there is a better way, but whether we can change our current system to the other, and brother, it won’t happen without blood. Sure, there’s a better way, but that’s a different timeline; we made this bed and now we must sleep in it. No one is to blame, hindsight is 50/50. In the meantime, enjoy the feast before the famine. Sweet dreams.

  19. I assume that we are at or well past Peak Oil or one of the other limits to growth; therefore, market systems and capitalism, which require growth, are no longer an option. If you think industrial, commodity farming is inefficient, take a look at the energy balance for market economies. The point is: What, if anything, will replace the wreckage of the current system after its collapse is complete. Therefore, while I heartily endorse decentralized (subsistence – not commodity) farming, I believe energy considerations will show the difficulties in feeding seven billion – even assuming a complete commitment to one-child families beginning immediately. I do not see how to avoid some sort of die-off with a great deal of suffering for many. As I said, “do the math.” Thomas Wayburn, PhD in chemical engineering, http://dematerialism.net/, http://eroei.blogspot.com/

    • You are probably right Thomas. Dieoff is not a certainty, but it does have a high probability. Each training program should have a dieoff component built-in (I call it Plan D). I train a few people every year, but it is not enough. Once a “tipping point minority” wakes up, there will be concerted action, but a lot of us old-timers will be gone. It’s a shame really.

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