The peasant food web

Climate breakdown is driven by and threatens our current food production systems. So how can we feed the world?

I do believe that richer people need to power down and make do with less, but the poverty of small farmers is not some fact of nature.

My book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future involves a critique of George Monbiot’s recent book about the future of the food and farming system, Regenesis. George responded with his essay, The cruel fantasies of well-fed people. In this brief reply, I’ll try to characterise some of the main issues of substance dividing us.

But let’s begin with three points of agreement I believe I have with George. First, we face potentially catastrophic global heating, largely caused by the use of fossil fuels, which demands immediate radical action. Second, a human-caused collapse of biodiversity and natural ecosystems is underway. And third, changing the food and farming sector is critical to addressing the first two problems.

On this third point, George and I diverge sharply over the nature of the necessary changes. In Saying NO, I argue for low-energy input, job-rich, local agricultures – what I call ‘agrarian localism’, and others refer to as ‘the peasant food web’. Ultimately, this goes hand in hand with a less urbanised world than now. I see this not as cruel fantasy but the most benign reality now achievable.


Modern cities are disproportionately high users of energy, and have been described as “entropic black holes” which “remain utterly dependent on fossil fuels”. Although urban per capita energy use or carbon footprints can be lower than corresponding rural figures in the richer, high-energy countries, in lower-energy countries the reverse is typically the case. 

One analyst has concluded: “If we are to seriously reduce GHG emissions, and the concomitant energy flows, the only way forward is to develop pathways that curb rural to urban migrations, keeping people on the land and able to make a living, and urban living will need to be far more modest”.

If existing patterns of urbanism are to remain, it seems necessary to replace the present fossil-dominated energy economy with a renewable one of a roughly similar scale in the next few decades. 

Some analysts believe this is possible in theory, while others don’t. In any case, the transition isn’t happening in practice, with fossil energy use at a record high in 2022. To replace fossil with renewable energy by 2050 requires roughly the equivalent of the entire energy use of Japan – the world’s fifth largest energy user – to be repeatedly cut from the shrinking fossil energy budget every year between now and then.

I do believe that richer people need to power down and make do with less, but the poverty of small farmers is not some fact of nature.

There aren’t many ideas around on how to achieve this, and there are even fewer on how to create a long-term sustainable food system outside of labour-rich agrarian localism. 


One idea trailed in Regenesis is the synthesis of bacterial biomass using low-carbon electricity, rather than the production of plant biomass with free sunlight. 

The problem with this is that it adds a huge additional demand for low-carbon electricity supply at a time when it’s inadequate even for existing demands. In Saying NO I argue that the bacterial route would, at a minimum, use 90 per cent of the world’s existing low carbon electricity just to meet the global population’s protein needs. This is an implausible mass food technology within current energy constraints. 

Putting the previous points together, I believe human ecologist William Rees understates his case in saying, “Cities, particularly megacities, are increasingly vulnerable to climate disruption, energy scarcity, and resultant geopolitical instability”. George describes my arguments for ruralisation as “a formula for mass death”. Seeking to avoid it may prove more lethal.

The spectre of ‘mass death’ haunts arguments for ruralism. Often, the underlying idea is that the peasant food web simply can’t produce enough food compared to modern industrial methods. This isn’t well supported by the evidence. 

There’s currently a dispute in the research literature concerning the proportion of all food globally produced by the peasant food web, but even the low-end estimates concede that per hectare productivities are higher than in the industrial system.


One recent study found that farms up to 10ha in size are currently producing 55 per cent of the food supply calorically on 40 per cent of the agricultural land, consistent with the well-established ‘inverse productivity’ relationship with farm size. The underlying complexities are numerous, but it’s not true on the face of it that small-scale local farming can’t feed the world. 

Food analyst Jim Thomas has shown that it’s not quite as difficult to transition the rest of the global food economy towards local peasant food webs as it might seem from George’s claim that the average minimum distance the world’s people can be supplied with staple foods is 2,200km. But it is difficult. All the more reason to get on with it.

Contrary to claims about the need to produce more food at higher yields to combat hunger (claims persuasively critiqued long ago by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen), the reality of the present industrial food chain is the overproduction of low-price food at high cost to people and nature.

Because many of the global poor are farmers, and many others comprise an underemployed precariat, low food prices that challenge farmer incomes and the peasant food web, or that push farmers into precarious non-farming employment, contribute to poverty.

Given this association with poverty, my arguments for more small farmers may seem misplaced. I do believe that richer people need to power down and make do with less, but the poverty of small farmers is not some fact of nature. Rather, it’s a global policy choice. But it’s a deep-seated one that ultimately requires cultural change. 

In Saying NO… I make some preliminary arguments about the primary importance of culture and cultural change in properly addressing climate, nature and food system problems - while nowhere saying that the need for adequate and affordable food is secondary. This, and the risks to human wellbeing of continuing down the urbanisation route, leads me to advocate for predominantly rural, agrarian and low-energy forms of society.

This Author

Chris Smaje is an author and small-scale commercial veg grower.