Family Life and Peak Oil and Self Sufficiency21 Aug 2009 02:26 pm

Potato harvest

Many people in today’s society (myself included) are astoundingly disconnected with — and naive about — food and its production.

I’m not talking here about the nastiness of our overly-manufactured foods, or our inhumane and unsustainable practices around raising animals for food (topics for another time).

I’m thinking about a couple of more fundamental issues: how much land you really need to support yourself and your family, and how fragile our modern food chain is.

I’ve talked before about how amazingly cheap and easy it is in our society to buy your day’s worth of calories. This is directly attributable to the fact that we still have relatively abundant cheap energy in the form of oil. But that easy life is going to be pulled out from under our feet over the next few decades.

One of the most eye-opening things about gardening is that you begin to appreciate how much time, energy, and resources (land, water, nutrients, etc.) are required to feed a person. For example, our greatly-expanded garden this year gives us roughly 800 square feet of planting area. Yet I am surprised how many people assume that we can basically feed our family from what we grow there. Ahh, were it so simple! It is a nice garden, to be sure, but the reality is that it only makes a small contribution to our diet (less than 2% now, but hopefully more once our soil is better and we become more proficient growers).

Just how much land do you need to feed a person in a sustainable way? It depends on a lot of things, obviously, but roughly speaking you’ll need about 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of planting area to supply all the food (year round) for one person.1 That assumes a vegan diet — if you start adding animal products (milk, eggs, meat) to that diet, the land requirement goes up pretty quickly. It also assumes that you really know how to garden well (I’m in my second year of serious gardening, and I’m sure I’ll still be learning plenty 5 years from now). And you will need to store a good bit of food for the portion of the year when the garden isn’t producing so much.

When you combine that reality with the things that we are doing now and will be seeing in the near future, it can get kinda scary.

As oil becomes increasingly more expensive and difficult to extract from the ground, the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ is going to crumble (relying as it does on cheap fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel, all of which are derived from petroleum). We are depleting topsoil on our commercial farmland at an alarming rate (something that has caused many societies to collapse). We are (literally) flushing key agricultural inputs (like phosphorus) down the toilet. Our fishing practices are on the verge of sending ocean ecosystems into collapse. In our car-induced madness we are starting to use biofuels, which (in the current corn-to-ethanol model) means wealthy people taking food away from the poor to use in our cars. In the slightly longer term, climate change (in combination with scarce fuel for transportation and habitation needs) is likely to make large areas of the planet uninhabitable by humans.2

I’m not looking forward to the likely near-term scenario when a spot shortage of oil over several weeks results in supermarket shelves emptied of all food. I’m trying to do something about it, but as we slowly grow and store more of our own food, I realize what a challenge and commitment it is. I am struck by the thought that pretty soon we will realize how remarkably easy we had it.

1. Those figures are based on discussions in two of the gardening books I trust most:

2. More good reading material on all of this:

Trackback this Post | Feed on comments to this Post

Leave a Reply