Sunday, March 22, 2015

"What to Eat After the Apocalypse"

In 1841, an invasive water mold began to infect the world’s potatoes. Starting from Mexico, the infectious agent of blight traveled up through North America, then crossed the Atlantic. Eventually it reached Ireland, where, as the journalist Charles Mann described it, “four out of ten Irish ate no solid food except potatoes, and … the rest were heavily dependent on them.”

The Great Famine, as it came to be known, could have been avoided in any number of ways, not least by ceasing the export of food from Ireland to Britain. But the British government failed to take effective action. The question of avoiding starvation becomes harder still if some apocalyptic event causes the whole world to starve. How might a government prepare for a worst-case scenario?

This is a question Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Technological University, began to think about while working on providing low-cost drinking water to the developing world. He found the prospect of disaster terrifying. “This would make us no better off than the dinosaurs, despite all of our technical progress,” he told me. “Humanity is too smart for that.”

Pearce partnered with David Denkenberger, a research associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. They looked around for detailed existing solutions and found just one: storing lots of food. But that, the two engineers realized, would probably feed the global population for a year or less.

So they developed a set of solutions that they believe would provide five years of food for the Earth’s population, and published a book about it called Feeding Everyone No Matter What. I spoke to Pearce to find out some of the very gooey ways we might survive the apocalypse.

What kinds of disasters do you think about?
Let me take the most likely one: the nuclear winter case. Say two countries that both have access to nuclear weapons get very angry at each other, and then retaliate, destroying most of the major cities in the opposite country. The vast bulk of humanity would survive, eventually. Say maybe we lost 5 percent of the population. Ninety-five percent of us would still be alive. But then as those cities burned, you’d end up getting soot in the upper atmosphere that stays there and darkens the entire planet. And all the crops fail.

As the world went dark, you’d have a couple of the more hearty crops survive—the trees would last a little while. But our standard crops? Your wheat, your rice, your corn? That’s all dead. You don’t get that harvest, and that’s what we feed the world with. Vegetable gardens, everything’s just dead. You can’t grow in darkness. As those crops fail, you’ll start to get hungry; you’ll start going into your stored food supplies. The historical assumption is that’s when we all go completely crazy. It’s bad. I’m sure you’ve seen the movies. There’s no good outcome there. That darkness will basically stay for around five years, until it starts to rain out of the atmosphere and then we’ll slowly but surely [get] more and more sunlight and start to rejuvenate agriculture again.

There’d be a little bit of conventional agriculture that survives—like the grow houses. For example, in Japan they have warehouses that just have racks of lettuce growing under LED lights, and that would still work, but what fraction of the population would that feed? I’m sure that the wealthy in whichever culture would still pick tomatoes and lettuce, but the vast majority of the world would not be eating those.

So what would we eat after the sky goes dark?
There are many things that you can eat that we don’t normally consider food, particularly in the west. Leaves are one of them. You can eat leaves. You just have to be careful about how you do it. Leaves are high in fiber and we can’t digest any more than half of it, but if you chew the leaves and spit out the fiber you can draw out nutrients from it. Or you can make teas.

Tea in particular is a relatively easy one to do. Pine needle tea has more than 100 percent of the vitamin C of orange juice. One could actually make pine needle tea from the pine tree in your backyard and get your vitamin C for the day. It’s actually a really good superfood. And in some cultures, like [South] Korea, they even have pop that is flavored with pine. That’s their drink.

The other obvious one is insects. The conversion ratios between biomass and food in insects is much better than say, in cows. Beef production is unbelievably inefficient the way that we do it. In the west, we definitely turn our noses up at eating insects. But there are actually quite a few people throughout the world that eat insects today and, for feeding everyone, it is a very obvious solution. It’s not like you have to eat insects raw. You would never know the difference between say, a sausage patty, a veggie sausage patty, and an insect sausage patty. It’s all the same! It’s just the spices. Let the food scientists go crazy on it....MORE