How to Feed a Nation
The miracle of the modern food supply
Here’s a simple question: It’s the middle of winter and you want grapes. What do you do?
The simple answer: You just walk into the grocery store and pick them up.
The slightly less simple answer: The American growing season is over. So, table grapes are harvested in Chile and packed into plastic containers. Then they’re loaded into pallets and trucked off to a cold storage facility. Then they’re loaded on a ship in the port of Valparaiso that makes a 12-dayi, 4,000-mile journey to the port of Wilmington, Delaware, where the grapes are unloaded, fumigated, and put into cold storage again. Then they’re trucked off to a distribution center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from which they are delivered to your local grocery store.ii
Where you just walk in and pick them up.
Pretty easy. For you.
But also: Kind of a miracle.
What does it take to feed a nation the size of the United States? Well, the good news is … a lot less than it used to.
Here’s what we mean: For most of human history most people have devoted most of their energy to making sure they have enough to eat.
In the year 1870, 50 percent of Americans were farmers and each one of them produced enough to supply about five people. By 1980, only four percent of workers were in agriculture — and each of them could supply food for nearly 70 people.iii
Our productivity gains have been astonishing. In the 70 years from 1948 to 2017, America managed to nearly triple its agricultural output while using only 3/4 as much land and only 1/4 as much labor.iv
The result: abundance.
Today, the average grocery store is over 50,000 square feet and stocks more than 35,000 items.v Thanks to international trade, we have fresh produce all year round. And, perhaps most importantly, we spend less: The percentage of Americans’ disposable incomes that goes to food has dropped nearly 40 percent since the 1960s.vi
But while Americans may no longer be as nervous about how we’re going to eat, we’ve become a lot more nervous about what we’re going to eat.
In 2022, nearly half of consumers were worried about carcinogens or “chemicals” in their food.vii And more than half thought that foods labeled “natural” were safer than those that weren’t, even if they had the exact same ingredients.viii
And, no shock here, there’s a lot of money being made off of those fears.
Consider the public’s growing demand for organic food. Since 2005, organic food sales in the U.S. have more than quadrupled.ix More than 2/3 of Americans say they at least occasionally buy organic.x And more than half of them say that organically grown fruits and vegetables are healthier for them than conventionally grown alternatives.xi
Which is not hard to understand. Most of us this “natural” must mean “healthier.” But there’s not much evidence for that belief.
In fact, when scientists at Stanford did the most comprehensive study of organics, reviewing 237 studies … they concluded that there wasn’t any significant difference in healthfulness or nutrition between organic foods and conventional ones.xii
And while organic foods are less likely to have pesticide residues than conventionally grown foods, the levels in both are so safe that scientists have reported the benefits of organics on that front are “insignificant.”xiii
But, so what? If consumers want to pay higher prices for organic food just because it makes them feel better, what’s the problem? Well, there really isn’t one … unless it gets in the way of actually feeding people.
See, here’s the problem: Organic farming is much less efficient than conventional farming. It requires far more land to produce the same amount of food.xiv For many crops, it produces higher greenhouse gas emissions.xv And it almost always makes food more expensive.xvi
Nowhere was that more apparent than in Sri Lanka, where the government recently forced the entire country to go organic.
The result: Sri Lanka’s rice production fell by 20 percent in just the first six months.xvii And the price of rice increased by nearly 50 percent.xviii Exports of tea, the country’s largest cash crop, fell to the lowest levels in nearly a quarter-century.xix Food production became such a problem that 90 percent of families in the country were skipping meals.xx
So, organics as a lifestyle choice? Fine. Organics as a way to feed a society? Doesn’t work.
And this isn’t the only well-intentioned gesture with unintended consequences.
Many consumers also buy local foods to try to reduce their environmental impact. But it doesn’t really have that effect — because for most foods, transportation only makes up a small part of their carbon footprint.xxi
In fact, you could reduce your impact more by skipping beef or dairy one day a week than by buying all your food locally.xxii
And by the way, buying local is one more strategy that can’t feed a nation. To give you just one example of why: If you took all the agricultural land in New York state you’d only get enough food to feed half of New York City. And nothing for the rest of state. And honestly … hasn’t Buffalo suffered enough?xxiii
Bottom line: It’s really hard to feed a nation of 330 million people. And we’ve done pretty well. Americans enjoy safe, affordable, abundant food. And as technology improves, we can expect that it’ll only become cheaper, healthier, and more environmentally friendly.
Although, let’s be honest, we’re all still just gonna buy the Cheetos.
- Port of Wilmington, Del. Receives First Breakbulk Shipment of Chilean Winter Fruit — American Shipper
- Tracing Grapes From Chilean Field to U.S. Grocery — Product Traceability Initiative
- "Agricultural Employment: Has the Decline Ended?" (Patricia A. Daly) — U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- "A Look at Agricultural Productivity Growth in the United States, 1948-2017" — U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Supermarket Facts — The Food Industry Association
- Food Prices and Spending — U.S. Department of Agriculture
- 2022 Food and Health Survey — International Food Information Council
- "Organic Food Sales in the United States From 2005 to 2021" (M. Shahbandeh) — Statista
- The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science — Pew Research Center
- "Little Evidence of Health Benefits From Organic Foods, Study Finds" (Michelle Brandt) — Stanford Medicine
- "Organic Foods" (Carl K. Winter, Sarah F. Davis) — Journal of Food Science
- "Is Organic Really Better for the Environment Than Conventional Agriculture?" (Hannah Ritchie) — Our World in Data
- Why Is Organic Food More Expensive Than Conventional Food? — Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- "In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong" (Ted Nordhaus, Saloni Shah) — Foreign Policy
- Sri Lanka Seeks Rice Bailout From China After Fertilizer Ban — EconomyNext
- Sri Lanka Tea Exports Lowest in 23 Years — France 24
- "Explainer: Why Sri Lanka’s Economy Collapsed and What’s Next" (Krishan Francis, Elaine Kurtenbach) — Associated Press
- You Want To Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Your Food? Focus on What You Eat, Not Whether Your Food Is Local — Our World in Data
- Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States — Environmental Science & Technology
- Food Distribution — Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
Sound | Artlist: "El Monte" Luke Melville // MusicBed: “Ascension” Deraj, “Werk That” The Fancee, “Ready For It” CRMNL, “Stronger” CRMNL // Artlist Sound Effects Library // Pond5 Sound Effects Library
Footage | Annals of Internal Medicine // Journal of Food Science // Library of Congress: Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Geography and Map Division // Our World in Data: Poore & Nemecek // Cornell: Cornell University Geospatial Information Repository // Associated Press // The Internet Archive: Prelinger Archives // U.S. Department of Agriculture // Getty: Jfmdesign, Grzegorz Wozniak / EyeEm, Jordi Salas, Christian Martin, Yevgen Romanenko, Alistair Berg, Buzbuzzer, Paulo Amorim, Burazin, Easy_Asa, NNehring, Ilbusca, H. Armstrong Roberts, Pencho Chukov, Monty Rakusen, Image Source, Max Oppenheim, Aerial Essex, Artur Kozlov, Burke/Triolo Productions, MirageC, Cavan Images, Dencake, Nerthuz, Richard Drury, Nipol Plobmuang / EyeEm, ATU Images, Raimund Koch, Hulton Archive / Stringer, Sascha Kilmer, Kameleon007, Mustafahacalaki, Varijanta, PeopleImages, Urfinguss, Deagreez, Fridholm, Jakob, Drbimages, Hyrma, Photodisc, Pidjoe, Bezvershenko, Mystockimages, Abhishek Chinnappa / Stringer, Francesco Carta Fotografo, GaryAlvis, Anjelika Gretskaia, Martin Poole, Emmanuel Faure, Ariel Skelley, PixelsEffect, Posteriori, Sergeyryzhov, SolStock, Sitade, Photo by Cathy Scola, Vadim, LWA, Westend61, Martin Novak, Miklmar, Bonilla1879 // Adobe Stock: Alfotokunst, Birgit Reitz-Hofmann, Danflcreativo, Pixel-Shot, Mehmet, ZhouEka, Shutter Din, David, CK, Hao Zhou, Andrii, Prostock-studio, Bowonpat, Taviphoto, Markus Mainka, Escapejaja, Photoboyko, Arkadiusz Fajer, Layn, Valeriy555, Kuarmungadd, Beatrice Prève, 4 Girls 1 Boy, Rawpixel.com, Vadim_fl, Alter_photo, Nipaporn, Supamas, ImagesMy, Sommai, Kenishirotie, Christian Schwier, Devrawat21, Gitusik, Kvector, HstrongART, Shacil, Etotparen, 1Stock, Vovan // Pexels: Peter Bond, Pixabay, Marina Leonova, David Lago Rodríguez, Tyler Lastovich, Anna Nekrashevich, Maël BALLAND, Clem Onojeghuo, Tim Mossholder, Beyza Kaplan, Matthia Zomer, Marina Akimova, Zen Chung, Alejandro Barrón, Jill Wellington, Kmeel Stock, Max Laurel, Kampus Production, Waldemar, Cottonbro, Quang Viet Nguyen, Burst, Raghav Bhadoriya, Oscuda // Pond5: Public Domain // Storyblocks: ToL, Fishmotion, Vivekfx, JustinHorrocks, Berkerdag, Rass, DCPmedia, Filmstudio, FrameStock Footage, RickRay // Unsplash: Jo Sonn, Mockup Graphics, Charles Deluvio, Easters Collective, Edgar Soto, Elena Koycheva, Ball Park Brand, Divani (Diva), Tyson, Ball Park Brand, Tijana Drndarski, Slashio Photography, Mia Cambriello, Carlo Verso, Nico Smit, Green Ant // Vecteezy: Sveta Kichanova, Aakar_Studio // Manicjedi // Rocco Aguilera // Tim Kiser // Upstateherd // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
- American Shipper
Port of Wilmington, Del. Receives First Breakbulk Shipment of Chilean Winter Fruit
- Product Traceability Initiative
Tracing Grapes From Chilean Field to U.S. Grocery
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
"Agricultural Employment: Has the Decline Ended?" (Patricia A. Daly)
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
"A Look at Agricultural Productivity Growth in the United States, 1948-2017"
- The Food Industry Association
- U.S. Department of Agriculture
Food Prices and Spending
- International Food Information Council
2022 Food and Health Survey
"Organic Food Sales in the United States From 2005 to 2021" (M. Shahbandeh)
- Pew Research Center
The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science
- Stanford Medicine
"Little Evidence of Health Benefits From Organic Foods, Study Finds" (Michelle Brandt)
- Journal of Food Science
"Organic Foods" (Carl K. Winter, Sarah F. Davis)
- Our World in Data
"Is Organic Really Better for the Environment Than Conventional Agriculture?" (Hannah Ritchie)
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Why Is Organic Food More Expensive Than Conventional Food?
- Foreign Policy
"In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong" (Ted Nordhaus, Saloni Shah)
Sri Lanka Seeks Rice Bailout From China After Fertilizer Ban
- France 24
Sri Lanka Tea Exports Lowest in 23 Years
- Associated Press
"Explainer: Why Sri Lanka’s Economy Collapsed and What’s Next" (Krishan Francis, Elaine Kurtenbach)
- Our World in Data
You Want To Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Your Food? Focus on What You Eat, Not Whether Your Food Is Local
- Environmental Science & Technology
Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States
- Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- "Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods" (Stanford Medicine)
- "The Myths of Organic Farming" (Scientific American)
- "In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong" (Foreign Policy)
- "Straight Talk About Organic Food" (The Harvard Gazette)
- "What You Eat — Not Where Your Food is from — Determines Carbon Footprint" (Our World in Data)
- "The Secret Life of Leftovers" (The New Atlantis)
- “In Praise of Fast Food” (Utne Reader)