Resilience to global food supply catastrophes

If a global catastrophe devastates global food production, several options could keep human civilization alive and well.

Seth D. Baum, David C. Denkenberger, Joshua M. Pearce, Alan Robock, and Richelle Winkler, 2015. Resilience to global food supply catastrophes. Environment, Systems, and Decisions, vol. 35, no. 2 (June), pages 301-313.

Pre-print: Click here to view a full pre-print of the article (pdf).

Many global catastrophic risks threaten major disruption to global food supplies, including nuclear wars, volcanic eruptions, asteroid and comet impacts, and plant disease outbreaks. This paper discusses options for increasing the resilience of food supplies to these risks. In contrast with local catastrophes, global food supply catastrophes cannot be addressed via food aid from external locations. Three options for food supply resilience are identified: food stockpiles, agriculture, and foods produced from alternative (non-sunlight) energy sources including biomass and fossil fuels. Each of these three options has certain advantages and disadvantages. Stockpiles are versatile but expensive. Agriculture is efficient but less viable in certain catastrophe scenarios. Alternative foods are inexpensive pre-catastrophe but need to be scaled up post-catastrophe and may face issues of social acceptability. The optimal portfolio of food options will typically include some of each, and will additionally vary by location as regions vary in population and access to food input resources. Furthermore, if the catastrophe shuts down transportation, then resilience requires local self-sufficiency in food. Food supply resilience requires not just the food itself, but also the accompanying systems of food production and distribution. Overall, increasing food supply resilience can play an important role in global catastrophic risk reduction. However, it is unwise to attempt maximizing food supply resilience, because doing so comes at the expense of other important objectives, including catastrophe prevention. Taking all these issues into account, the paper proposes a research agenda for analysis of specific food supply resilience decisions.

Non-Technical Summary: pdf version

Background: Global Food Supply Catastrophes
A global catastrophic risk is a risk of an event that would cause major harm to global human civilization. Many global catastrophic risks are risks of global food supply catastrophes because they threaten major disruption to global food supplies. These include risks of nuclear wars, volcanic eruptions, asteroid and comet impacts, abrupt climate change, and plant disease outbreaks. Global food supply catastrophes are an important class of global catastrophic risk. This paper studies how to make humanity more resilient to global food supply catastrophes, so that humanity could successfully withstand, adapt to, and recover from such a catastrophe.

Food Supply Options: Food Stockpiles, Agriculture, and Alternative Foods
There are three basic options for food supplies during global food supply catastrophes. Food stockpiles are collections of food prepared before the catastrophe. Food stockpiles are versatile but expensive. Agriculture is the primary food supply during normal times and may not work well during a catastrophe. Alternative foods are foods produced using energy sources other than sunlight, such as trees or natural gas. Alternative foods are less expensive than stockpiles, but they drain natural resources and would take time to scale up after the catastrophe. The paper finds that agriculture should in general be the first option, followed by alternative foods, and then food stockpiles.

Local Factors
Under normal circumstances, there is global trade in food supply. During a global catastrophe, trade may be shut down, forcing each location to be self-sufficient. Each location should consider its own mix of the three food supply options depending on local circumstances, such as resources for alternative foods and transportation infrastructure. For example, northern Maine has many trees and a small population, so it may be able to depend on the trees for alternative foods. However, the Dallas metropolitan area has a large population and few trees, so it will need other food supply options.

Making Food Supply Decisions
The paper discusses some important factors in how decisions about the food supply options should be made. It is important to keep the food supply above some minimum threshold, in order to keep people alive. But what should that threshold be? This is a difficult ethical question with many possible answers.

A Research Agenda
Specific food supply decisions can be informed by dedicated analysis. The paper outlines a research agenda for analyzing these decisions. For example, the amount of food that a location should stockpile depends on its capacity for agriculture and alternative food as well as an ethical judgment about the appropriate minimum food supply threshold.

Created 4 May 2015 * Updated 17 Jun 2015