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Ladies and gentleman, today we were summoned by the Agro-nerd council with one unique mission: we must take a single acre of land and feed the largest amount of people possible. But this isn't your average "how many people can be fed in a square kilometer?" question, because today we are following the example of the Chinese!

In his excellent work, Farmers of Forty Centuries, Franklin Hiram King recorded some farms in the Shantung province where a family of ten was (barely) fed by a mere 1.66 acres. In other words, 6 people were sustained in a single acre, and we must remember that, according to King, Shantung was far from being the most productive region in china (that being the pearl and yangtze deltas), and even was facing an extended drought!

The Chinese achieved this extreme yields thanks to diligent and intensive work on their objectively small farms: a single plot was seeded and harvested THREE times a year, and far from being depleted, that same plot remained productive for centuries without a single inch left fallow thanks to an almost religious diligence towards fertilization: from night soils to ashes and scraps, everything was returned to the land. With the help of polyculture the Chinese farmer integrated poultry and fish inside their irrigation canals and used every inch of land and water available.

But today, gentleman, we have the whole modern world and it's green revolution at our disposal: you can use everything technology and science has to offer. From modern pesticides and fertilizer, to GMO fast-growing yield-increasing crops supercharged with C4 photosynthesis. You can pick the most fertile soils in the most fruitful climate and blessed with the best irrigation canals in the world. Just remember: the soil must be worked. You cannot postulate Heresies like "hydroponics" or "aeroponics", least the wrath of the council destroys our world.

So, my dear friends, please help me feed the world!

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    $\begingroup$ I dread already the answer of arm-chair experts. I'm outta this one, it's too important to be left down to the theorists. $\endgroup$ Nov 22 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ Is this a question about building a fictional world or a discussion prompt about potential future real-world agricultural practices. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 22 at 3:46
  • $\begingroup$ Parameters are too broad and unclear to answer. We could technically take a grape, force it to only grow vertically and get the food like this. Roots deep but straight while growing straight up. Small area, big yield. Without further clarification and restrictions you can 'cheat' a lot here. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Nov 22 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ Are you looking for solutions that would fully satisfy human nutritional needs or will you be satisfied with the highest theoretically possible yields for specific crops? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Nov 22 at 17:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin I'd prefer to fully satisfy the needs of the population, or at least as much as possible. And the grape idea is certainly interesting. If you want to cheat, do so! Within the limits of logic $\endgroup$
    – Rhomaioi
    Nov 22 at 22:31
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There are many solutions to your problem, all of which are possible and would contribute.

We are involved now in a local technological 'food bowl' project to increase yields / reduce land resources to supply produce to local and international markets.

Related to your question is how to not just reduce land, but also to reduce energy use and water use via recirculation and resource re-use.

There are many solutions currently being researched - lets rank them loosely from currently available to being researched:

Current recommendations:

  • Hydroponics. A heresy in your question, but needn't be. By controlling environments specifically, yield can be optimised by creating the best nutrient mix, humidity level and constant lighting as possible. Essentially a greenhouse does this - but using natural light. Hydroponics is no different, just using soil, water and light optimally.
  • Vertical Farming. By stacking farming vertically, the same square metre area can be utilised again for more yield. By doing this you also can create methods to minimise processing (if stacked trays, plants can be processed in batches and automated)
  • High Protein animal farming. By creating tanks of marron/salmon/insects it is possible to have high output for little land area.
  • Recirculation and Reuse. This includes the use of solar power, geothermal or other forms of power to reduce the footprint of a farm - as well as reusing waste resources from one aspect of a project (for instance, waste of a plant, to be the food of an animal, and then also fertilise plants)

Under research:

  • Optimised greenhouse glass. By altering a greenhouses glass to only pass through relevant wavelengths of light, plant growth can be optimised. Currently under testing.
  • Aeroponics. A heresy in your question, but questionably so. By eliminating soil entirely, nutrients can be provided atmospherically. Although the atmosphere would be toxic to humans, if encapsulated in a sealed environment Aeroponics can eliminate resources required to maintain and administer soil. To reinterpret - aeroponics is basically soil (the relevant part) in air form.
  • GM. Mentioned in your question, GM is mainly to ensure either plant is optimised (in terms of size or quality) or increased in yield or adverse conditions (germinating more often, reduced time, or in harsh soils). Both would reduce resources required, if you're willing to forgo the 'organic' tag.
  • Robotics. Robots can be tailored to suit a task, perform quickly and consistently, and no need for humans to be incorporated. For instance, a lot of square metre area is used in paths for humans, work benches, sorting trays etc. All can be eliminated with the use of robots and automation, such that every square millimetre is used. Only maintenance areas need to be added, for which depends on the expertise and quality of your operation.

An exciting time, but all of the above could mean a positive future for us all.

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  • $\begingroup$ This covers the skyscraper hydroponics operation which was going to be my contribution. + $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Nov 23 at 14:51
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I am not an agricultural scientist, a nutritionist nor in any way qualified to have a voice on this matter, but I do have some skill at flipping a question over and addressing its issues from an unexpected angle. So since we have been invited to use GMO technologies in our answers, I will offer this...

Genetically modify the hungry humans to require less food. Make them shorter, leaner, healthier and more efficient in their caloric consumption. Then give these new little people lots of powered-tools and robots so that they can accomplish as much as their bigger hungrier predecessors.

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  • $\begingroup$ Meh, driving down the sexual drive will suffice, but then it wouldn't answer to the intensity efficiency. $\endgroup$ Nov 22 at 4:56

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