Yes, Human & Animal Powered Agriculture can Feed the World

“You can’t sustain current population with only human and animal powered agriculture. We need machines to feed the world.”

This is an attitude that I’ve run across more than once, and yet it seems that those who express this attitude are always unwilling to provide any reason that it should be believed. I would have liked to take the argument of someone who believes this as my starting point, but being unable to find such an argument, I have been forced to create my own. After considerable thought, the below is the most intelligent argument I can make against the idea that the world could be fed by human and animal powered agriculture (hereafter, natural-scale agriculture).

1. Natural-scale agriculture requires smaller farms than machine agriculture, which in turn means more farm families. The switch from human/animal agriculture to machine agriculture drove many farm families from their land and into the cities, and this process continues as the machinery gets bigger. A current 1,000 acre mega-farm was likely at one time 25 or more natural-scale farms. More farm families mean more farm houses and barns, which means less land in production. If a 1,000 acre mega-farm was divided into 25 natural-scale farms, that would mean 24 more houses, which might take a total of 12 acres (on the high side) out of production from the total of 1,000. Extrapolated across the board, this could mean a 1.2% reduction in farmland in production under natural-scale agriculture.

2. Natural-scale agriculture requires different farming methods. For example, natural-scale agriculture does not lend itself well to the spraying of glyophospate or herbicides on crops. While natural-scale agriculture does not preclude the use of hybrid seed per se, natural-scale farmers are far more likely to choose heirloom varieties and save their own seed. Because overhead irrigation is not available, rows must often be planted further apart to ensure each plant receives adequate water to thrive. All of this results in a lower yield per acre. According to Purdue University data, from 1866 to about 1937, US average corn yield held relatively steady at about 25 bushels per acre. In 2019, thanks to technology and machinery, average corn yield was about 170 bushels per acre.

3. Horses, mules, donkeys, oxen, and even farm hands require food. Unlike a tractor or combine, which only uses fuel when performing work, humans and animals require food at all times. If it rains for a week, and no field work can be done, humans and animals still require food, while a tractor will sit in the barn consuming nothing. The part of the farm devoted to pasture or grain for draft animals is land that is not producing food to “feed the world.”

4. Growing crops with 1/7th the yield on 1.2% less total land, and then devoting part of that land to feeding animals instead of humans would result in far less food being produced for humans. Such a reduction in the amount of food available for humans would cause widespread starvation and a failure to “feed the world.”

Hopefully this argument is not too much of a straw man. Unfortunately, it must be somewhat of a straw man, as I have been forced to create it myself. However, perhaps this article will spur discussion and provide me with other arguments to interact with.

First, natural-scale agriculture fits in smaller places than machine agriculture. In preparing for this article, I asked a current farmer who farms a very large acreage with machines what size field is the minimum size for such agriculture. He told me that 10 acres is the cutoff, and any field smaller than that is not likely worth planting in machine agriculture. However, in natural-scale agriculture, 10 acres can be an entire farm! The acre itself is a remnant of the medieval measure of the amount of land that could be plowed in one day by one man behind one ox. So for a one-ox plowman, fields as small as a a half-acre are worth plowing—its a half day’s worth of work. And human-powered agriculture, using wheel hoes, rotary cultivators, or simply hand hoes, can productively farm a much smaller field, which we tend to refer to as a garden. There are many small fields and other marginal areas that are not conducive to machine agriculture but are perfectly farmable using natural-scale methods. So natural-scale farming would increase, not decrease, the total amount of farmable land.

Secondly, the much lower yield of natural-scale agriculture would be a concern if the entire yield of machine agriculture was going to feed humans. However, this is not the case. According to the USDA, in 2019 13,620 million bushels of corn were produced. Of these, 6,257 million bushels went for “Food, Alcohol, and Industrial Use;” 30 million bushels went for Seed Use; 5,897 million bushels went for Animal Feed; and 1,778 million bushels were exported. This adds up to roughly 300 million bushels more than was produced, which was made up by using previous stores and imports.

Now lets look at the 6,257 million bushels that went for “Food, Alcohol, and Industrial Use.” Of these 6,257 million bushels, 4,857 million bushels went to “Alcohol for fuel.” In other words, 36% of the corn grown went for Ethanol fuel, which is clearly not human food and does not “feed the world.” If we convert that to acres, it means that there are 29 million acres currently farmed, but not used to grow food, and which could easily be converted to food production. However, that’s not all: 232 million bushels went for industrial starch, 419 million bushels went for high-fructose corn syrup, and 356 million bushels went for glucose/dextrose. Since none of these are foods, that’s another 6 million acres available for food production, for a total of 35 million acres.

We’ll assume that natural-scale farming would require as much seed as mechanical farming, and leave seed use alone. That brings us to the 5,897 million bushels that went for animal feed. The vast majority of this is feed for cows in commercial dairies and feedlots. In one sense, we could consider this as going towards human food and “feeding the world,” as humans eat beef and dairy products, which are more nutritious than corn. However, if we consider trophic losses, and the fact that cows can eat grass on pastures that are too steep, rocky, or otherwise featured to plant crops on, or on land that is going through a necessary fallow cycle, it becomes clear that it is unnecessary to devote prime cropland to feeding cows. This frees up another 35 million acres of cropland, bringing the total to 70 million acres.

70 million acres, when only 81 million acres of corn were harvested! 86% of the corn harvested does not go to feed people. Since only 1,859 million bushels of corn for human food were grown on 81 million acres of corn, the human food yield per acre for 2019 is 22 bushels per acre, below the average yield of 25 bushels per acre from 1866 to about 1937. Furthermore, average corn yields for natural-scale farmers today is likely much higher than 25 bushels per acre. I do not know what the figure was for 2019, but Wendell Berry cites 70 bushels per acre as the lower end of corn yields for natural-scale farmers in the late 1970’s. If you wish, you can look up the USDA data on soybeans, the 2nd largest crop in the US, and see how much of current crops go to non-food use, but I think the corn numbers alone are enough of an illustration to make the point in this article.

Finally, while draft animals do indeed eat even when not working, they are capable of subsisting entirely on pasture or hay when not working. As mentioned above, pasture and hayfields can exist on ground too steep, rocky, or otherwise featured for plowing. Once the pasture is fenced, there is no cost to letting the draft animal graze, and because cover crops and fallow cycles are necessary to responsible land use, there is very little additional cost to harvesting hay. Furthermore, oxen, donkeys, and mules are all capable of performing work on nothing but pasture/hay. Horses will require a little grain when being worked, but like the other animals, will subsist comfortably on pasture/hay when not being worked.

I realize that this article has tore down no arguments other than ones I invented myself, and which therefore are at least partly straw man arguments. However, I hope that reviewing the information has made you more sure that natural-scale agriculture is perfectly capable of feeding the world, not only at current population levels, but even at much larger ones. In conclusion, I would ask you to consider all the farmers and farm families driven off their land and into the cities by the mechanization of agriculture, depopulating rural areas. This seems to me to be the very thing the prophet condemned, and to me his words demand a reversal.

Woe to them that join house to house, and add field to field, that they may take away something of their neighbors’: Will ye dwell alone upon the land?

Isaiah 5:8

A Short History of my Relationship with Technology

I was recently asked if I had ever written an essay on my “primitivist philosophy.” I don’t consider myself a primitivist, and I don’t know if I even have a fully coherent philosophy when it comes to technology and its use, but my thinking on the topic has certainly evolved and deepened since I last wrote on the topic here. Reading and learning on many topics has effected my views, including philosophy, permaculture, responsible agriculture, history, economics, and religion. I can’t condense the contents of many books into one essay, so this post will just scratch the surface of what people more intelligent than I have written.

Let’s start with the 5 questions for evaluating technology I posed back in 2014:

  • What benefit will I gain from making use of this technology?
  • How much will it cost me to make use of this technology?
  • If I adopt this technology, am I in a worse place when/if it fails than I would be if I had never adopted it?
  • Should this technology fail, is it easier or harder to repair myself than my current system?
  • Will the regular use of this technology cause me to lose a skill that would be vital should the technology fail?

All the above questions are focused on evaluating a newly-available technology. But what about previously-adopted technologies? Things I’ve been using since birth? Should they also be evaluated?

Some rather ubiquitous technologies, adopted by many of my peers from birth, I grew up largely or completely without. I grew up largely without television, and completely without video games. Even today, in my thirties, I still do not own a television. I’ve noticed that this results in me having a completely different perspective on the technology than some of my peers. When a peer and I discuss the role of television, particularly national broadcasts, in the destruction of regional dialects and local cultures, we interpret this fact differently. He sees it as a sad but inevitable loss, because of course we couldn’t live without television. I see it as a needless and wanton destruction, because of course television is unnecessary and this negative consequence far outweighs any minor entertainment value when there are so many more enjoyable means of entertainment anyways.

Perhaps it was recognizing the negative effects of an ubiquitous technology that I don’t use, like television, that prepared me to see the negative effects of technology that I do use, like cars. I don’t think I’d ever even considered the cultural impact of cars until I read this short article in 2017. But suddenly, a lot of things clicked. The unwalkability of modern cities. The much stronger social fabric (and better aesthetics) of walkable cities. The insanity of transporting food across a continent . But mostly, I suddenly woke up to the cultural and societal shifts that the automoble brought about. Perhaps I was primed here too. In 2017, my wife and I shared a single vehicle, and had done so since getting married in 2015. When she went out of state to visit her parents, I rode my bicycle to work. Perhaps this helped me to see the possibility of living without a car (a possibility that I am not currently pursuing, more on that later), and perhaps I had to see living without a car as possible to honestly consider the damages caused by the mass adoption of the automobile.

Somewhere around 2017, I began looking for a grain mill. My wife makes homemade bread, and I wanted to mill our own flour, rather than buying flour. I was going to buy an electric grain mill, like both my mother and Courtney’s mother had when we were growing up. But then we happened to buy a hand-crank coffee grinder. I discovered that I enjoyed turning the crank by hand. And I’d always hated the terrible racket that electric grain mills make. I did some research, and found a number of hand-cranked grain mills, eventually buying one. I found several things that surprised me. First, I was surprised that the mill was far easier to turn than I expected. My 2 year old at the time was able to turn it. Second, I was surprised at how fast it was. It milled enough flour to bake a batch of bread almost as fast as the electric mill I was used to–and ground it finer to boot! Third, I was surprised at how much more enjoyable it was to grind grain using it than with the electric mill. Sure, it took a few seconds longer, but the whole process was enjoyable, while the sightly faster process with the electric mill was not.

Previous to the grain mill, in 2016 when we bought our first house, I couldn’t afford to buy a riding mower. So I bought a Fiskars reel mower and mowed our just under half acre lot with it until a friend later gave me a riding mower. I loved mowing with it. It took a little while, and it was hard to push if I let the grass grow too long but it did a great job, and it was so quiet, and it didn’t matter if the grass was wet. Sometimes I mowed at 6am without worrying about disturbing the neighbors. Later, when I was given the rider, I spent far less time mowing, but it also was less enjoyable, a chore to finish. And my lawn never looked as nice. Having had this experience with the lawn mower, coffee grinder, and now the grain mill, I began to consciously choose to use hand tools more on projects and power tools less. I found that this often made the projects more enjoyable. They did take longer, but I also tended to procrastinate starting less, so I didn’t find this really impacted the total amount of work I got done.

Even after I began choosing to use hand tools more than power tools, there was one particular power tool or machine that I wanted. I have wanted a small farm since at least my teens. This farm would be diversified and labor-intensive, making use of small fields that are too small to even work with modern 24-row cultivators. And I wanted a compact or sub-compact tractor with a front-end loader to work this small farm. A front-end loader is an incredibly useful piece of equipment, with essentially limitless uses. There is also not a human or animal powered alternative to a front-end loader. But then I started realizing the harm caused by tractors.

Tractors, by allowing one man to do much more work, greatly reduced the jobs available in agriculture, and were thus instrumental in forcing many men off of farms and into the cities and factories. As the tractors grew larger, so did this dysgenic effect. Furthermore, tractors were instrumental in degrading the land, and in exceeding natural limits, causing monopoly of the food supply as more small farmers are forced out of business each year as larger and larger corporations control more and more of the land. Reading The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry convinced me that when I finally get my little farm, draft animals will be better for both me and the land than a small tractor.

The fields lose their humus and porosity, become less retentive of water, depend more on pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers. Bigger tractors become necessary because the compacted soils are harder to work-and their greater weight further compacts the soil. More and bigger machines, more chemical and methodological shortcuts are needed because of the shortage of man-power on the farm—and the problems of overcrowding and unemployment increase in the cities. It is estimated that it now costs (by erosion) two bushels of Iowa topsoil to grow one bushel of corn. It is variously estimated that from five to twelve calories of fossil fuel energy are required to produce one calorie of hybrid corn energy.

The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry

Philosophically, there are few things that I have learned that have changes how I view and interact with technology. The first is that technology is not neutral. Most of us recognize that every tool or machine has a purpose, but most of us do not see the actual purpose of most technology. For example, if you ask most people the purpose of a gas-powered hydraulic log splitter, they will say that its purpose is to split logs. However, this is not the case. The purpose of a splitting maul is to split logs. The purpose of a gas-powered hydraulic log splitter is to free the splitting of logs from the constraints of human labor. If human limits are a fundamental part of humanity, than machines designed to circumvent those limits are fundamentally inhuman, and we shouldn’t be surprised if they also circumvent other aspects of humanity, including community and sometimes joy.

Secondly, I’ve learned to see labor differently. This is two-fold. First, I’ve learned that labor isn’t a negative to be avoided at all costs, and second, I’ve learned to more fully account for hidden labor. Much of our technology is designed with an assumption that labor is bad. The gas-powered hydraulic log splitter is “better” than the splitting maul because it requires less labor. But, as I learned with my grain mill and lawn mower, not all labor is equal. Some labor is more enjoyable than other labor. I could split my logs with a hydraulic splitter, get done an hour earlier, and use that hour to go to the gym and lift weights. But am I actually ahead of where I am if I take the extra hour to split with a maul, knowing I am getting a good workout, and enjoying the satisfaction of doing the work myself?

A modern tractor and haycutter can do the work of many men with scythes when it comes to cutting hay. But does that mean the scythe requires more labor? On the surface, yes, but what if we look deeper? The tractor and haycutter were assembled in a factory, and the labor of the workers must be factored in. Before they were assembled, they were designed, so we must include the labor of the engineers, product designers, and product testers. We must account for the labor that built the components, that loaded the shipping containers of components onto rail cars, ships, and semi trucks, and that transported them to the factory. We must also account for the transport of the finished product to the dealer, the construction of both the factory and the dealership, and the labor of the repair technician at the dealership. We must must account for the labor involved in drilling for, refining, and transporting the petroleum that fuels the tractor. At this point, is the scythe still require more labor? I don’t know, but let’s assume it does. We now must factor in the enjoyment factor. Is the labor in the windowless factory mindlessly assembling parts equal to the labor of swinging a scythe in the open air with a breeze on your back and the birds singing overhead? What about the labor of the repair technician, or the truck driver, or the billing clerk for the farm cooperative’s fuel depot? How do the scythe and the tractor with haycutter compare when all the hidden labor and it’s quality is factored in? I don’t know, but I do know that the scythe comes out considerably better in a true accounting than in the superficial one often used.

So how do I currently navigate all of this? Well, I own two vehicles, a zero-tun lawnmower, a chainsaw, a gas weed-eater, a laptop, and a smart phone. Clearly, I am not a total Luddite. However, I do try to make conscious choices. When I put up the frame for my greenhouse, I used a hand saw to cut the joinery, and used nails and a hammer rather than screws and a screw gun. I try to limit my use of automobiles–any trip to a store (except the auto parts store) generally waits until I or the wife is already going to either work or church. We do not have internet service at our house, except for the ability to use a cell phone as a hotspot, which we turn off when not in use. I am considering buying a small (~125cc) motorcycle to ride to work and back to reduce our consumption of gasoline. I built a clothesline to reduce our use of the electric dryer. I installed a non-electric pellet stove to reduce our dependency on our natural gas furnace. We use kerosene lamps for our lighting needs in the winter. I try to take it one step at a time and become less reliant on technology each year.

Perhaps someday I will have a small farm, and breed mules. Maybe I’ll be able to do this somewhere close enough to church that we can do without a car. Maybe I’ll be able to limit electricity and internet to a small office in a shed on the property. But for now I just try to make one small step and a time, to use my labor instead of a machine where I can.