Could we grow all the food we need in our yards?

victory garden guy
© Library of Congress

A few months ago, I worked on a small farm for a weekend. I spent one full day digging up potatoes and picking squash. By the end, I had around five buckets full of food, all from just a few rows of plants that couldn't have spanned more than 20 yards.

"You can really grow a lot in a small space," I remarked to the farmer, hiding that I was one or two more potatoes away from collapsing from exhaustion. "You could probably feed a family for year just on this acre."

"You could feed a lot more people than that," she responded.

small farm in northern Illinois© Ilana Strauss

This is going to sound hopelessly naive to any farmers out there, but I grew up in an urban environment surrounded by miles of cornfields. I imagined that people needed huge swathes of land to grow enough to eat. And the data seemed to back me up. A few years ago, University of Wisconsin scientists found that humans use nearly half of the Earth's surface for agriculture.

But apparently, I'd missed something. We've written about how a family only needs a couple acres of farmland to grow food. One California family even says it grows 6,000 lb. of food a year on a tenth of an acre. That's enough to feed the family and sell $20,000 worth of extras.

Perhaps this used to be common knowledge. During World War II, the government encouraged people to grow their own vegetables, and these tiny "victory gardens" provided nearly half of the country's vegetables.

"At first the federal government was skeptical of supporting these efforts like they had before. Officials thought large-scale agriculture was more efficient," writes reads Smithsonian's digital archive.

The government was in for a surprise. "Reports estimate that by 1944, between 18-20 million families with victory gardens were providing 40 percent of the vegetables in America," the Smithsonian continued.

Back in the day, most people were subsistence farmers, meaning they mostly grew their own food. When the Industrial Revolution created advances in agriculture, news tools like tractors and fertilizers made it much cheaper to grow food, because tractors don't demand paychecks. This was particularly attractive to large corporations, which saw they could make some serious profit off food. We use mass production because it's cheaper, not because food actually requires all that space.

Some will argue that relatively inexpensive, mass-produced food has a lot of benefits, and they're right. But it's got a lot of drawbacks too. Mass produced food is grown for profit, not taste or nutrition. Perhaps that's why, when foreigners come to the U.S., they often complain about our bad-tasting produce.

Even more pressingly, using up so much of the world for farmland is destructive to, well, the world. So many animals and plants are being forced off their habitats that scientists are hailing this age as the beginning of a new mass extinction.

So maybe growing our own food isn't such a crazy idea. And it's not as though doing so would turn back the clock. We're still heirs to the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. Small-scale farmers use modern farm equipment too.

Could we grow all the food we need in our yards?
How efficient is mass production, really?

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