The Typical American Diet after the SHTF

You will soon be a vegan. Whether you like it or not. If/when the U.S. agricultural system collapses — and we are definitely headed in that direction — there will be very little animal-source food in the marketplace. Prices for beef, poultry, and dairy will skyrocket, but more importantly, the supply will plummet. We will not be able to maintain our typical American diet of beef, pork, chicken, milk, eggs, cheese and other animal-source foods. Most Americans, most of the time, will be eating vegan or at least vegetarian.

If — I would say “when” — the U.S. food production and distribution system collapses, people will need to grow most of their food locally.

If your household tries to grow all its own food, you will need at least 0.5 acres per person for a survival vegan diet (Living Off the Land: How Much Land?). A survival diet consists of three types of crops: 1) grains, 2) legumes, 3) fat crops (seeds, oil seeds, etc.). That’s not the diet that you are used to, even if you are a vegetarian. And it’s 0.5 acres per person. For a more varied diet, still devoid of any animal-source foods, it’s more like 1.0 acres per person.

Then taking into account possible crop failures, unexpectedly low yields, and other factors, you’d be better off with 1.5 acres per person. And don’t forget that you need to grow enough food to last through the winter and into early summer (when the next crop is harvested).

Growing all your own food requires a small farm for a family. And since you probably don’t own all of the machinery needed for a small farm, its mostly manual labor. A husband, wife, and a handful of kids probably can’t do all the work needed. If you get extended family members, friends, neighbors to help out, you need to grow enough food for them also. They will want a share of the crop (sharecropping). And that means more land. So then … how big is your yard? The vast majority of Americans can’t grow their own food.

It’s best to grow food on a national level. But if that system collapses, the next best approach is some form of local/regional food production. However, the same land/labor metric applies to the local community as to the individual household. Does your town/county have enough land and manual labor (or agricultural machinery) for the number of residents?

First of all, unless you live in a State with vast agricultural resources, you can forget about eating food produced by local small farms. They do not produce enough food for the local residents. A town of 15,000 persons would need 7,500 acres of farming land (0.5 acres/person) for a survival diet, and 15,000 acres for a more varied vegan diet. Are there fifteen to thirty 500 acre farms in your town of 15,000 persons? There is no way your local community produces enough red meat or poultry or dairy to maintain a typical American diet.

Now consider that a city of 100,000 persons needs 50,000 to 100,000 acres. Now our nation’s large-scale agricultural system uses fertilizer, irrigation, and machinery to obtain high yields with little manual labor. Even so, the U.S. has about 390 million acres of land used to produce crops (annual and perennial) for 322 million persons. That’s 1.2 acres per person. At the local level, with little machinery, fertilizer, or irrigation, yields will be much lower. Also, most of the population just has no idea how to grow or harvest food. So one acre per person is optimistic, and produces a much more meager diet than we are accustomed to expect.

Does your community have enough farming land to feed its population? Probably not. Even if you live in one of the top agricultural States, local farmers might not be able to obtain enough seed for planting, fertilizer, or fuel for the machinery to provide their usual yields. If the agricultural system collapses, yields per acre will suddenly plummet to about one quarter of usual. And if there is not enough fossil fuels to run the machinery, the States with the most farming land also have smaller populations — not enough workers to harvest all that land manually.

You can forget about surviving in a city or crowded suburb if people need to live off the local land. Too many persons, not enough land. How much of the land in your region is covered by buildings, asphalt, and trees? And you can’t just clear-cut a forest and plant crops. The work needed to do so is immense. The land is not suitable for agriculture. It takes years to replace a forest with agricultural land. Only rural areas will have a shot at producing all their own food.

If non-agricultural land is newly tilled to grow food for the local population, the yields will be remarkably low. Without fertilizer, irrigation, the best soil, and agricultural machinery, crop yields will resemble the early 1900′s.

For example, the average U.S. yield for corn in 2014 was 171 bushels per acre. That’s 9576 lbs/acre (with a 56 lb bushel). But from 1900 to 1940, corn yields remained flat, between 20 and 30 bushels per acre, which is 1120 to 1680 lbs/acre. Yields did not begin to rise until the 1940′s, due largely to artificial fertilizer. Yields did not top 100 bushels/acre in the U.S. until 1978. Other crops have seen similar increases in yield over time, especially from 1960 to the present day.

The entire U.S. has only 1.2 acres/person of agricultural land (arable land and tree crops). Take away fertilizer, irrigation, and modern machinery, and nationwide yields will certainly fall below the level needed to maintain the typical American diet. We devote about 105 million acres of land to producing corn and soybeans for livestock feed. That land will be needed for human food once the agricultural system collapses.

At first, livestock feed will be available, but at much high cost, due to the move toward producing more grains, legumes, and other food crops. Livestock producers will have to cull their herds, selling off the meat and poultry cheap because they can’t afford the feed. So in the short term, we’ll be feasting on inexpensive red meat and poultry. Once that’s gone, supplies of meat and poultry will fall sharply and prices will skyrocket. Supermarket shelves will be devoid of most animal source foods most of the time.

And don’t think for a minute that there will be ample amounts of grains, legumes, and other plant-source foods. The lack of animal-source foods will greatly increase demand for plant-source foods, causing prices to rise and availability to fall. You will count yourself lucky to have a meal of pasta or rice, plus beans, vegetable oil, and maybe some nuts or seeds.

Maybe you should buy a couple of vegan cookbooks.

– Thoreau

One Response to The Typical American Diet after the SHTF

  1. I envision lots of rice and beans in the diet after things go south. I grow a lot of fruit and veggies, but in a chaotic world, a lush green garden would scream “come rob me”. Just my take.