Our current resilient foods research indicates that the following solutions are the most affordable and most likely to be implementable following a number of different catastrophes, but especially those catastrophes that could reduce sunlight and drastically decrease global temperatures.
Food supply shortages will occur after any disaster that can cause agricultural yields to plummet. Such disasters could include nuclear or volcanic winter, which trigger large and sudden decreases in temperature.
In these events, crops will no longer be able to grow in much of the world, but temperatures around the tropics would likely still be high enough that cool-tolerant crops, such as potatoes, sugar beets, and barley, could be relocated to those regions. While relocating cool-tolerant crops is an option, we’re also considering the development and deployment of a large number of simple, relatively low-tech greenhouses to allow other crops to continue to be grown in situations that severely affect outdoor farming (see: Scaling of greenhouse crop production in low sunlight scenarios).
These greenhouses could be built and scaled up to work in parallel with regions where cool-tolerant crops are able to be grown outdoors, and they would help offer greater varieties of food. This potential solution needs further research, and pilot projects need to be deployed so that we can identify and address challenges now, before catastrophe strikes. For example, we know greenhouses would require fast scaling of plastic extrusion for the covers, and we need to ensure the processes are in place to do this. If we can establish the necessary processes to scale up greenhouse development and deployment, then they could potentially provide up to about one third of the global food requirements after the first year.
The ocean contains considerable untapped potential for food production thanks to seaweed which can be used in a variety of foods and feeds or consumed directly. The farming technology to grow seaweed can be simple, based on little more than ropes, buoys, anchors and boats; and it can be deployed quickly without experienced labor.
Research we’re doing now indicates that global seaweed production could be ramped up in less than a year to provide enough calories to feed the entire global population. This immense potential for fast production ramp-up deserves further research and feasibility studies. Drafting response plans to scale up seaweed production now could make a huge contribution to preparedness and resilience against extreme catastrophic scenarios. Such a plan would be invaluable for decision makers to have beforehand. The amount of seaweed that people could eat would be limited by the high iodine and other mineral content, but there are seaweed treatment methods that could address this.
Moreover, boosting domestic seaweed production now could provide several additional benefits associated with nutrition, employment, and mitigation of CO2 emissions, especially in cattle. If the most popular seaweed species were increasingly cultivated under current conditions, these could be used as food for consumers or by industrial companies as a feedstock for biochemicals, biofuels or other bioproducts. If a catastrophe occurs, then these popular but pricier species could be switched to other species with higher growth rates or richer nutritional contents to serve as a quickly scalable addition to citizen’s diets. This could be relatively straightforward since different established species often require similar equipment and cultivation techniques.
During food shocks that reduce global food production by 5% or more, the deployment and scaling of many resilient food solutions will take at least 6–12 months. Current food storage supplies are not anticipated to be able to meet demand before this time.
One potential solution can be found in animal feed. Animal feed is often made of human-edible food, including corn, soybeans, and oats. Yet many animals, such as cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and others, can also consume plant materials that humans can’t. In a catastrophe, we could quickly transition to feeding many animals new diets based on agricultural residues and biomass byproducts, such as cereal stalks and tree leaves.
This would immediately free up large amounts of human edible calories; over 1,700 calories per animal per day could now be used to feed people, while still feeding just as many ruminant animals with nutrition humans can’t consume. This allows expensive animal products to still be produced, but not at the expense of feeding the animals human edible food stores.
In order to test this approach, ALLFED has developed a geospatial model that assesses how many animals could be fed in a specific location by nearby agricultural residues. This model maps over 90% of all residues against global fiber-digesting animal populations, allowing the development of management and redistribution plans for agricultural residues and ruminant populations.
Leaf protein concentrate (LPC) is a nutrient dense, protein rich food source made from non-toxic leaves and grasses. Producing LPC involves a simple process of grinding the plant matter, extracting the juice, and boiling the extracted liquid. During the boiling process, the protein concentrate will rise to the surface. With a texture similar to tofu, it can be consumed in a variety of ways, including as protein powder or concentrate, and it can be fed to both humans and animals.
The tools for the process can be relatively basic for smaller scale production or higher-tech for large-scale production.
The simplicity of the process and accessibility of plant matter in most locations make LPC a highly resilient food option during a catastrophe. In fact, LPC has great potential to bridge nutritional deficits now, as well as during food system shocks. ALLFED is investigating the merits of LPC by assessing how much of Nigeria’s current calorie deficit could be met by producing LPC from existing agricultural residues. Though still underway, preliminary results appear promising.
A key challenge to making LPC available is creating a publicly available database of proven safe to eat LPC. This database can be developed using an open source Liquid Chromatography coupled Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) toxicity testing pipeline to rapidly assess regionally important LPC input sources provided by a global network of community owned production facilities. ALLFED is exploring collaborations with organizations and companies in order to rapidly scale up global LPC production through the deployment of open source, do-it-yourself LPC production tools.
The vast majority of our food consumption today comes from crops cultivated outdoors, either directly or indirectly after having been fed to animals. These crops vary worldwide, and are matched to their local climate. However, this means that in a catastrophe involving a severe reduction in sunlight, for example a volcanic eruption or nuclear winter, crops will quickly move out of their optimal temperature range, causing a sharp drop in yields.
As a result, in such a catastrophe it may be necessary to relocate cool tolerant crops from the higher latitudes to the tropics, where temperatures would still be viable for their cultivation and where there is a significant amount of arable land. Crops need to be able to tolerate low temperatures and periods of low rainfall. They will also need to be cultivated on a reasonably broad area of land in order to ensure sufficient calories, protein, and fat. There are a number of foods that meet these requirements, including potatoes, rapeseed, sugar beet, spring wheat, and spring barley as well as some beans. They can provide a wide range of essential nutrients, and could potentially be combined to fulfill most of our nutritional needs. Their yields could also be supported by the intensive application of all available fertilizers, as well as the relocation of capital such as tractors where relevant.
The challenges behind relocation are many: cool tolerant seeds would need to be scaled rapidly to as wide an area of the tropics as fast as possible, which may necessitate the replanting of grains and seeds stored for consumption. Farmers in the tropics would also need support and training on a large scale to bring them up to speed on crops they have never cultivated. There would also need to be an unprecedented degree of trust and cooperation worldwide, with seeds, inputs, and expertise provided by the temperate latitudes, combined with the land, labor and local skills provided by the tropics.
The challenges here are significant, and our work on crop relocation is ongoing. However, the challenges are solvable, and even in a severe loss of sunlight catastrophe we believe it would be possible to feed billions based upon the relocation of a few hardy crops.