Variables: Crops, Livestock and Farming Method
In addition to grains, fruits and vegetables, American farmers raise 7 billion livestock animals [source: Kellogg]. These animals are fed more of our farmed grains than people consume — five times more grain. Interestingly, if these crops were fit for and fed to humans instead of animals, the number of people fed by one farm could skyrocket, and the total tonnage could feed as many as 800 million people [source: Pimentel].
Every year those livestock farms produce a total of 7 million metric tons of animal products. We'll look at beef as our example: When it comes to raising cattle and producing animal protein to sell to consumers, the numbers break down to about 400 pounds of steak, ribs and other cuts for the American population to broil, roast or barbecue from one 700-pound animal [source: Dole & Bailey]. While the exact numbers vary depending on the method of raising the livestock (such as grain-fed and pasture-raised), if you consider one serving to be 3 ounces — the recommended serving, which is about the size of a deck of cards — that one animal contains slightly more than 2,100 servings.
And then there's the matter of farming method.
Put aside the ongoing debate on whether organic foods are more nutritious than their conventionally grown counterparts; when we're talking about how many people can be fed by one farm, we want to know about yield. And when it comes to organic farming methods, studies find that, generally, organic yields fall short when compared to those grown with conventional farming techniques.
However, before you shoot the messenger, it's important to understand that yields depend not only on method, but also on the type of crops we're comparing, in addition to whether we're looking at best-case scenarios or real-life outcomes. Taking those variables into account paints a more complete picture: The numbers may fall anywhere from just 5 percent smaller to as much as 34 percent smaller.
When comparing certain fruits and vegetables, organic yields seem to outperform conventional [source: Gilbert]. Organically farmed corn, for example, produces a 29 percent lower yield than when conventional methods are used, yet organic raspberry yields outproduce conventionally grown berries [source: McWilliams]. Under the best circumstances using the best methods, organic farming produces 13 percent smaller yields, but, overall, typical organic methods produce 25 percent less [source: Gilbert].
Author's Note: How many people does one farmer feed in a year?
Foods beyond their "best before" date, rotting fruit, leftovers that you forgot about that have gotten kind of fuzzy ... if you find yourself throwing away the container of yogurt you never got around to eating before its expiration date, I know how you feel. Americans end up throwing away a lot of food — 26 percent of vegetables, 24 percent of fruits waiting to be eaten and, overall, 14 percent (or more, depending on the report you read) of all the food we buy. And, embarrassingly, included in the foods we toss into the trash are items that are still good, maybe even unopened. So I'm keeping this tip in mind, and maybe you will, too: Soft, wilting produce can be revived in an hour-long cold water bath.
More Great Links
- American Heart Association. "What is a Serving?" July 24, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Caregiver/Replenish/WhatisaServing/What-is-a-Serving_UCM_301838_Article.jsp
- Charles, Dan. "American Farmers Say They Feed The World, But Do They?" NPR - Food for Thought. Sept. 17, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/09/17/221376803/american-farmers-say-they-feed-the-world-but-do-they
- Crayola. "FAQ: How many crayola products do you make per year?" (Oct. 17, 2014 http://www.crayola.com/faq/your-business/how-many-crayola-products-do-you-make-per-year/
- Dole & Bailey. "Northeast Family Farm FAQs." (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.doleandbailey.com/news_neff_faqs.php
- Dunckel, Mary. "Small, medium, large – Does farm size really matter?" Michigan State University. Nov. 14, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/small_medium_large_does_farm_size_really_matter
- EPA - National Agriculture Center (Ag Center). "Ag 101." April 14, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014 http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/index.html
- Farm Journal Foundation. "Farms Feeding the World." (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.farmersfeedingtheworld.com/farming-matters/
- Gilbert, Natasha. "Organic farming is rarely enough." Nature. April 25, 2012. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.nature.com/news/organic-farming-is-rarely-enough-1.10519
- GRACE Communications Foundation - Sustainable Table. "Animal Feed." (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.sustainabletable.org/260/animal-feed
- GRAIN. "Hungry for land: small farmers feed the world with less than a quarter of all farmland." May 28, 2014. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.grain.org/article/entries/4929-hungry-for-land-small-farmers-feed-the-world-with-less-than-a-quarter-of-all-farmland
- Gunders, Dana. "Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill." National Resources Defense Council. August 2012. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf
- Gurian-Sherman, Doug. "Small Farms, Not Monsanto, Are Key to Global Food Security." Union of Concerned Scientists. Oct. 17, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://blog.ucsusa.org/small-farmers-not-monsanto-are-key-to-global-food-security-272
- Kellogg, Robert, L. "Profile of Farms with Livestock in the United States: A Statistical Summary." U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Resources Conservation Service. Feb. 4, 2002. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/technical/nra/nri/?&cid=nrcs143_014121
- Kirschenmann, Frederick. "How many farmers will we need?" Iowa State University. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture - Ag Decision Maker. January 2001. (Oct. 17, 2014) https://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/articles/others/KirJan01.htm
- McWilliams, James E. "Organic Crops Alone Can't Feed the World." Slate. March 10, 2011. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/green_room/2011/03/organic_crops_alone_cant_feed_the_world.html
- Pimentel, David. "U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists." Cornell University - Cornell Chronicle. Aug. 7, 1997. http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/1997/08/us-could-feed-800-million-people-grain-livestock-eat
- Sullivan, Alison. "Fact Check: Reynolds says one Iowa farmer feeds 155 people worldwide." The Gazette. May 24, 2014. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://thegazette.com/subject/news/government/fact-check/fact-check-reynolds-says-one-iowa-farmer-feeds-155-people-worldwide-20140524
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Briefing on the Status of Rural America." (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.usda.gov/documents/Briefing_on_the_Status_of_Rural_America_Low_Res_Cover_update_map.pdf
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Economic Research Service - FAQs." Aug. 7, 2014. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.ers.usda.gov/faqs.aspx
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) - National Agricultural Statistics Service. "2012 Census of Agriculture - Highlights: Farm Demographics." May 2014. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Farm_Demographics/Highlights_Farm_Demographics.pdf
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) - National Agricultural Statistics Service. "2012 Census of Agriculture - Preliminary Report Highlights: U.S. Farms and Farmers." February 2014. (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Preliminary_Report/Highlights.pdf
- Wisconsin Soybean Association. "U.S. and Wisconsin Soybean Facts." (Oct. 17, 2014) http://www.wisoybean.org/news/soybean_facts.php