Reverse Engineer Your Diet
By Matt Powers

How much land and seed do you really need?

Eating a diet based on locally grown food has become a popular goal, and great way to combat climate change. Often in permaculture, we talk about how we need to perennialize or relocalize our diets, but until we fully explore what we can grow to fit our needs, we often can’t visualize what that would look like throughout the year – season to season. Map out your needs and then map out the possibilities of what you can grow.

Can I grow that? Can I make that? Is that locally even possible?

Estimations & Generalizations

Yields and crop descriptions found online, in books, or on seed packaging are either generalizations or averages, usually tied to certain regions. Because of this, the data for zones, height, yield, etc. are always prone to some inaccuracy. Keep in mind as you plan your planting that you can always stretch or break the traditionally accepted rules a bit when you partner with nature. You may also find some plants don’t grow in your region no matter what the packaging says! When researching gather 3 to 4 different perspectives and then average those that match your climate, growing style, and situation. Then decide what to experiment with.

The only way to really calibrate your land to exactly your needs is to constantly be adapting your system — as all natural systems are subject to constant change. All systems that go from paper to planting to management must adapt, and the same is true when we reverse engineer our diets.

You may not have enough land to grow all the wheat to match the amount you currently consume in bread and pasta, but you could get a higher percentage of your caloric needs perhaps from other foods you can grow on-site, thus adapting your diet.  Using this exercise is a realistic important first step as a way to organize our gardens, analyze our ecological footprints, and start to meet our food needs at home.

When planning a garden to match your diet, always overestimate how much space you will need to grow enough food. Using the standard farming measurements of yield overestimates how much yield you will get per square foot per variety in a polycultural system but underestimates how much you could get in a biointensive system. Tightly packed polycultural spacing is not biointensive to the individual variety but to all. Though polycultural yields individually are lower than monoculturally raised crops per square foot, there are more types of yields per square foot and more total yield per square foot, making for a more diverse portfolio of foods in total.


How Much of That Do You Eat per Month? Per Year?

If we analyze our complete diet, it can give us incredible insights to how much land we are farming vicariously as a consumer. If you can monitor – much like a diet journal – the foods you eat or buy in a month, you can multiply that amount by 12 to get a general idea of how much of that food you consume each year. You can also find this data by retaining and cataloging your food purchases over a month or average several months over the year to be more accurate.

1 lbs of seed potatoes typically grows 10 lbs of potatoes in 10 feet of garden row.

25,000-60,000 lbs per acre are typical in a commercial setting.

If you consume 10 lbs of potatoes a month, that is 120 lbs a year.

12 lbs of seed potatoes could grow 120 lbs in 120 feet of garden row.


Start with your staple foods; they are the backbone of your diet. Among the most common global staple foods are wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, sorghum, yams, and plantains. Each yields tons per acre in conventional agricultural systems. Our systems yield less in weight but more in nutrition per pound. Even then, we may not have the space to grow all we currently consume, especially when it comes to wheat.

9-10 square feet of wheat can yield 4 cups of flour in a season.

If your family consumes 2 loaves of bread a week, that’s roughly 8 cups of flour a week.

An 1/2 acre can grow 400 loaves of bread or 1600 cups of flour.


How many other foods are you consuming acres of a year? This is usually the point at which folks either adapt their diets, join a CSA, become dedicated to local farmers’ markets, or give up trying to meet all their food needs locally. The reality is some plants can give incredible yields in a small space. Trees can not only provide a large yield, they can provide trellis, mulch, and shade for other plants — among a myriad of other benefits to the entire system as a whole.

A mature standard apple tree can grow 500–1000 lbs of fruit in a season.

A mature standard peach or apricot tree can grow 150–300 lbs of fruit in a season.

A mature avocado tree can yield 60–200 lbs of fruit in a heavy bearing season.

A mature chestnut tree can yield 15–130 lbs of nuts in a season.


Jack of All Trades, Master of None

There is a danger in trying to do everything – you tend to master nothing and get a low return on your investments. For most of us it is impossible to grow or make everything we are accustomed to in our modern world by ourselves – whether we are talking about our clothing, food, medicine, and especially fuel. It takes a community to support our modern diets. To be regenerative, or at least sustainable, we have to align our diets with our local biomes and economies. For most this would be a drastic change of lifestyle. If we really want to fully reverse engineer our diets, it can be done, but it often requires more time and land than we can or want to afford unless we focus on growing them as our business or get creative with what we eat. Using this simple concept of analyzing our food consumption and mapping out what it would take in seed, land, and time to grow it all, we can make better design decisions, better food choices, and make realistic steps towards growing much of our own food at home. And, don’t forget to plan out how much space you will need to store it all!!