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Life After Global Catastrophe: How Do We Feed Everyone?

By: , Posted on: November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving DinnerIn general, Americans and other citizens of developed countries do not spend a lot of time thinking about food security – particularly over steaming mounds of turkey and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. Our supermarkets are overflowing with an inexpensive variety of delicious foods and even the shelves of the local gas station’s convenience store are bursting at the seams – not unlike many of our waistlines. This comfortable food security situation – let alone the epidemic of obesity is all possible because of our highly developed agricultural system. But what if we lost it?

There is a list of global catastrophes that could render all of our conventional agricultural methods irrelevant including: super volcano, asteroid or comet impact, nuclear winter, abrupt climate change, super weed, super crop pathogen, super bacterium, or super crop pest. The probabilities of some of these occurring in our lifetimes is shockingly high – much better than you winning the lottery. We have known about these problems for decades, yet today if global agricultural production is dramatically reduced for several years, mass human starvation is what we are going to get: think of it as Anti-Thanksgiving.

Leading “experts” recommended food storage as a solution. However, when you actually calculate out how much food you would need the recommendation is impractical. Few people are going to sacrifice a bedroom in their house for food storage stacked floor to ceiling in America  – even if they could afford it – let alone the rest of the world. So we wrote the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe to answer a simple question: How do we feed everyone on the planet if we lose mass-scale agriculture due to one or several problems from the list of global catastrophes?  At first, this may seem like an impossible problem. After all, even today with the global agricultural machine running full tilt there are over 800 million people who suffer from chronic hunger. We make more than enough food now, so how much harder does that problem become when, for example, a super volcano blacks out the sky so the sun cannot reach our crops?

Feeding Everyone No Matter WhatWe attacked these problems as engineers, not farmers – by evaluating how we could use existing stores of biomass and fossil fuels and convert them to human edible foods using known technologies.  The good news is our results show that even in the worst situations with no sunlight for five years straight – humanity is far from doomed. In Feeding Everyone No Matter What, we provide a wide menu of solutions to select from.

The options include: natural gas-digesting bacteria, extracting food from leaves, and conversion of fiber by enzymes, mushroom or bacteria growth. Further options involve a two-step process involving partial rotting of fiber by fungi and/or bacteria and feeding them to animals such as beetles, ruminants (cows, deer, etc.), rats and chickens. We perform an analysis to determine the ramp rates for each option and show that they as a whole can come online before we run out of stored food.

Our results show that careful planning and global cooperation could ensure that we could feed everyone and maintain the bulk of biodiversity even in the most extreme circumstances. In fact, there will even be a little dietary variety as we are sure some readers may not be overly excited about all of our solutions (e.g. eating bacteria, beetles or rats) – every day for five years straight.

To put the plan for these alternative food sources into action to provide humanity with an insurance policy in the event of global catastrophe needs some minor policy changes. We lay out some common sense, rational and remarkably easy policies that would be in the best interest of everyone to implement immediately to greatly reduce the probability of such global agricultural disasters. In addition, we outline the research that is necessary to actualize these solutions and plan for humanity’s survival ensuring that we feed everyone no matter what.

Praise for Feeding Everyone No Matter What:

“This book lays out the agenda for a new research field: how to feed the world in the event of a global catastrophe. This could be the most important research we hope never to have to use. Denkenberger and Pearce take a hard-nosed look at where we could turn for food in the event of the collapse of agriculture. Their ideas are innovative and striking, and surely worthy of further development.”

Robert Wiblin | Executive Director | The Centre for Effective Altruism, housed in University of Oxford

About the Authors

David DenkenbergerDr. David Denkenberger (also known as 3D) received his B.S. from Penn State in Engineering Science, his M.S.E. from Princeton in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the Building Systems Program. His dissertation was on his patent-pending expanded microchannel heat exchanger. He is a technical consultant at Ecova doing electronics and appliance energy efficiency. He is also a research associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. He received the National Merit Scholarship, the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and is a Penn State distinguished alumnus. He has authored or co-authored over 30 publications. He has given over 60 technical presentations.

 

Joshua PearceDr. Joshua M. Pearce received his Ph.D. in Materials Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University and holds Chemistry and Physics degrees from the same institution. He currently is an Associate Professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group. His research concentrates on the use of open source appropriate technology to find collaborative solutions to problems in sustainability and poverty reduction. His highly-interdisciplinary research spans areas of electronic device physics and materials engineering of solar photovoltaic cells, but also includes applied sustainability. He has more than 100 peer-reviewed publications based on his research. Most recently his group has become well-known for cutting the costs of scientific research by designing open-source hardware having authored the book: Open-Source Lab: How to Build Your Own Hardware and Reduce Research Costs.

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