Although modern agriculture has increased food production faster than population growth in recent decades, there are concerns that existing models of ‘industrial agriculture’ are unsustainable due to long-run trends towards increased fossil energy costs. This has led to suggestions that food production in future will need to be based on smaller-scale and more labour-intensive farming systems. This paper examines political economy arguments that large-scale capital-intensive agriculture has proved more productive. It counterposes these to ecological economics approaches that emphasize the low energy efficiency of capital-intensive mechanized agriculture. The paper argues that discussion of a ‘post-industrial’ agriculture remain polarized between visions of a more energy-efficient mechanized agriculture on the one hand, and labour-intensive farming by ‘new peasantries’, on the other. The paper identifies questions that are neglected by this debate, in particular those concerning the productivity of labour in food production and its implications for food prices and the livelihood basis of farming.