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Resilience to global food supply catastrophes

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An Erratum to this article was published on 02 August 2015


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.

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  1. The literature on these risks sometimes uses other terminology besides “global catastrophic risks,” such as existential risks, extinction risks, or simply catastrophic risks. The distinction between these terms is not crucial for this paper. What matters is that these are all major risks to the viability of human civilization.

  2. Stratospheric geoengineering is a procedure in which aerosols, typically sulfates, are injected into the stratosphere in order to block incoming sunlight, thereby cooling the surface. The effect is similar to the cooling from volcano eruptions, asteroid or comet impacts, or nuclear wars, except that with geoengineering the aerosol injection is controlled to optimize the cooling. However, if aerosol injection ceases for whatever reason, then temperatures rapidly rise to where they would have been without any geoengineering.

  3. Such risks are not completely unknown. For example, we know that they threaten global catastrophe. But such risks are relatively unknown compared to the risks named here.

  4. In other contexts, fossil fuels are considered a primary energy source, and solar energy is an “alternative” energy. However, for agriculture, sunlight is by far the primary energy source, and fossil fuels are an alternative.

  5. The resilience definition of global catastrophe to human systems is adapted from the theory of catastrophe to ecological systems contained in the recently proposed concept of planetary boundaries (Rockström et al. 2009a, b).

  6. Helfand (2013) documents prior food crises resulting in disease outbreaks. Diamond (2005) and Butzer (2012) chronicle the collapse of civilizations due to food security disruptions, disease outbreaks, and other stressors.

  7. Inadvertent nuclear war as defined by Barrett et al. (2013) occurs when one side misinterprets a false alarm as a real attack and launches nuclear weapons in what it believes is a counterattack, but is in fact a first strike.

  8. Similar issues of social acceptability can be found for many technological solutions to societal risks (e.g., Flynn et al. 1992; Otway and Von Winterfeldt 1982).

  9. Indeed, this assumption often does not hold under normal times, as food transfers often result in some food loss.

  10. Bostrom (2002) uses the term existential risk instead of global catastrophic risk but the underlying concept is essentially the same.

  11. An argument can actually be made that society at present should prioritize the minimization of global catastrophic risk above all other objectives, given the massive harms of global catastrophes to future generations (see for example Bostrom 2002; Beckstead 2013). But there is no universal consensus on this matter, and so, other objectives may be worth pursuing.

  12. The use of “boundary” here is in the spirit of planetary boundaries research (Rockström et al. 2009a, b; Baum and Handoh 2014), in which boundaries are normative policy parameters set a safe distance away from dangerous system thresholds. Here, achieving F S ≥ F B ensures a sufficiently small probability that food security thresholds will be crossed—a sufficiently small probability that humanity’s resilience to food catastrophes will be exceeded.


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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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Correspondence to Seth D. Baum.

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Baum, S.D., Denkenberger, D.C., Pearce, J.M. et al. Resilience to global food supply catastrophes. Environ Syst Decis 35, 301–313 (2015).

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