Abundance of food today compared with routine scarcity of food earlier than 150 years ago.

Abundance of refrigerated fresh meet at your conveniently available grocery store. Not an option for anyone on the planet 200 years ago, to say nothing of the 10,000 years prior. Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

For most of history, one of the main challenges was getting enough food to eat. Keeping your family alive through the winter until you can harvest the first crop in the spring has been a worry for thousands of years.

That point is important when considering ancient finances back in the days of the Roman legions or Viking raiders. The following discussion, which is cross-posted from my other blog Outrun Change, provides some context on food scarcity.


Johan Norberg describes the tremendous progress in the last several hundred years in so many areas, such as life expectancy, health, sanitation, liberty, education, and equality in his book Progress: 10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. Here are a few more tidbits I found fascinating.

Consider the scarcity of food in the past and the drop in cost to feed a family in the last 150 years.


Look at just a few of the statistics on availability of food, or rather the long running issue of scarcity of food:

  • In France at the end of the 1700s, average families spend about half of their income on grains. Typical food would have been gruel.
  • In the 18th century, people living in France and England consumed fewer calories than what is average today in sub-Sahara Africa. That is the area in the world with the worst food supply issues.
  • In the distant past people did not work long hours. Don’t envy that. Author says that is because people worked as long as they were able to. They did not have enough food to work long days. Author cites Agnes Deaton as introducing the term “nutritional trap” in England from the 1700s until early 1800s. People did not work hard because they did not consume enough calories to work hard enough to raise enough food to be able to work hard. They were not able to obtain enough calories to have the energy to work hard.

That is the reason that anytime you looking at size of doors in historical buildings or discussions of average size or pictures of people from the 1700s and 1800s they were shorter than today and skinny. Their growth was stunted because they didn’t get enough food.

One of the biggest things that eliminated that lack of food was artificial fertilizers.

Another thing that massively increased the amount of food was technology. Consider the amount of time it takes to harvest 1 ton of grain:

  • 150 years ago – 25 men would work all day
  • Today – one person with a combine harvester can do the same job in six minutes.

Let’s convert that into a percentage improvement

  • 1865 – 25 men x 10 hour day x 60 minutes = 15,000 minutes per ton harvested
  • 2017 – 1 person with combine x 6 minutes = 6 minutes per ton harvested

That is a 99.96% reduction in time. One hundred years ago it took 2500 times longer to harvest a ton of grain than it does today.

Hours needed to buy food for a family

Let’s look at the abundance of food in terms of how much labor time it takes to buy food for a family. Author says in the late 1800s it took 1,700 hours of labor to buy enough food for a family for a year.

Today it takes 260 hours or less of labor.

Let’s look at that in terms of hours per week and in relation to a typical work week, which I will assume is 60 hours around 130 years ago and 40 hours today:

  • 1800s – 1,700 hours = 32.7 hours per week = 54.5 % of a 60 hour work week
  • today – 260 hours = 5 hours per week = 12.5% of a 40 hour workweek

So about 130 years ago or so it would’ve taken about half of someone’s workweek just to put food on the table. Today it would take about one-eighth of a workweek – just over half a day out of a five-day week. That is a fourfold improvement in the cost to buy food.

Phrased differently, 130 years ago someone had to work almost as many hours a week (32.7) just to feed a family as a typical worker today works in a full week (40).

Oh, and do I need to point out that in the western world somehow someway getting enough food to grow up strong and healthy is no longer a struggle? Today our challenge across developed countries is holding down our weight. What a wonderful problem compared to the, oh, say, 10,000 years before 1900.

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