Environment Systems and Decisions

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 301–313 | Cite as

Resilience to global food supply catastrophes

  • Seth D. BaumEmail author
  • David C. Denkenberger
  • Joshua M. Pearce
  • Alan Robock
  • Richelle Winkler


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 to 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.


Global catastrophic risk Food security Resilience Alternative foods Nuclear winter Volcanic winter 



We thank Tony Barrett and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper, and Melissa Thomas-Baum for assistance in preparing the graphics. Any remaining errors or other shortcomings are the authors’ alone. Alan Robock is supported by US National Science Foundation Grants AGS-1157525, GEO-1240507, and AGS-1430051.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Seth D. Baum
    • 1
    Email author
  • David C. Denkenberger
    • 2
  • Joshua M. Pearce
    • 3
  • Alan Robock
    • 4
    • 5
  • Richelle Winkler
    • 6
  1. 1.Global Catastrophic Risk InstituteWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Global Catastrophic Risk InstituteDurangoUSA
  3. 3.Department of Materials Science and EngineeringMichigan Technological UniversityHoughtonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Electrical and Computer EngineeringMichigan Technological UniversityHoughtonUSA
  5. 5.Department of Environmental SciencesRutgers UniversityNew BrunswickUSA
  6. 6.Department of Social SciencesMichigan Technological UniversityHoughtonUSA

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