Space & Innovation

Are We Perilously Close to a Global Food Shock?

Insurer Lloyd's warns that three weather-related disasters in a row could create a starve-amageddon.

If you want to be really scared out of your wits by an apocalyptic food shortage scenario, you don't need to rent a copy of "Soylent Green." Instead, check out this nightmare scenario envisioned in a just-issued report from global insurance giant Lloyd's of London.

The document, created by experts in food security and sustainable development economics and vetted by an outside panel of academics, explains how it would only take three weather disasters in close succession to throw humanity's food supply into chaos.

The result would be a brutal rise in prices for commodities such as corn, soybeans, wheat and rice, and a plunge in the financial markets.

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It's a disaster for which we're largely unprepared, the insurer warns. "Little work has been done to explore the global food system's growing vulnerability to acute disruption," the company said in an accompanying press release.

In the scenario, our planet is hit with wind-blown wheat rust in Russia; a heat wave in South America; and an especially strong warm phase from the El Niño Southern Oscillation cycle. The resulting damage to agricultural production would quadruple the cost of important food commodities.

Agriculture is the world's most important industry, employing 40 percent of the world's population, the Lloyd's report noted. So disrupting it could lead to a major economic shock. The resulting hit would cause European stock markets to lose 10 percent of their value, and wipe out 5 percent of the value of U.S. companies as well.

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Meanwhile, food shortages would have the potential to cause riots in urban areas across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America, and lead to wider political instability, the report concluded.

Experts actually have been sounding the alarm about a nutritional apocalypse for a while. Back in 2009, Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown warned in this Scientific American article that chronic woes such as water shortages, soil losses and rising temperatures from climate change threatened to cause a food crisis that could lead to civilization's collapse.

Another just-released modeling scenario by researchers at the UK's Anglia Ruskin University predicts that such a global collapse could occur by 2040, unless governments change their policies, according to the Guardian.

Hungry people climb the walls of a food distribution center in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Experts fear a similar crisis from weather disasters today.

Introduction

If you've seen the trailer for the fall blockbuster-bound "2012," then you pretty much know the entire plot: Earth's crust collapses like a failed souffle, deadly meteor showers chase John Cusack's van and ancient Mayans scoff that they totally called it. In just 157 minutes of screen time, civilization collapses and the U.S.-run Institute for Human Continuity somehow overcomes partisan politics and begin loading survivors onto ships to ride out doomsday. The "2012" viral marketing campaign managed to stir legitimate concerns over humanity's ability to survive a possible extinction event. There's no such thing as the Institute for Human Continuity, but that doesn't mean real scientists haven't thought long and hard about the survival of the human race. We're about to fly through five scientific takes on doomsday survival and the plans they entail, so hold on to that steering wheel.

5. Near-Earth Object Defense

The Great Wall of China, the complete works of William Shakespeare, that YouTube video of the puppy on its back. Human civilization has created some truly memorable bits of culture, but history has proven that we're just one extraordinary catastrophe away from kissing all of it goodbye. Just consider the 65-million year-old K-T boundary extinction event. More recently, think long and hard about the 1908 Tunguska Event, in which an asteroid spectacularly self-destructed and produced an impact comparable to about 185 Hiroshima bombs in the Siberian wilderness. What happens if we discover a space rock on a crash course with everyone's favorite inhabited world? Scientists have proposed a number of options, such as blasting it off course with a nuclear explosion, strapping rockets to it or even painting it a different color to let the sun push it far, far away. Read Top 10 Ways to Stop an Asteroid for a sampler of all the options on the table.

4. Planet Hacking

Human culture is on a road trip of sorts and its default Volkswagen minibus is none other than the planet Earth. Obviously we're concerned about events that could wipe out civilization in a single strike, but what about smaller, debilitating events such as melting ice caps and rising sea levels? In the same way you might temporarily kick some more life into that beat-up minibus, planet-hacking schemes attempt to jury-rig a habitable planet in the face of catastrophic climate change. Cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions might work too, but planet hacking tends to involve more drastic proposals to tip the scales back in humanity's favor. Sure, you should have had that engine checked out 3,000 miles ago, but now you're broken down in Death Valley. What would MacGyver do? Well, given major funding, he might attempt to counter incoming solar radiation with everything from reflective rooftops to increased cloud cover stirred up by robotic fleets of ships. He might even install mirrors on orbital satellites or erect forests of fake trees to suck up carbon dioxide. None of these plans would serve as permanent fixes -- and some could potentially unleash unforeseen atmospheric changes -- but the idea is to save the world now and fix the problems later.

3. Terrestrial Seed Vaults

Should Earth face a cataclysmic event, a great deal more than John Cusack's van might be jeopardized, such as, oh, all the major food crops. You back up important computer files, right? Then you'll probably agree that the best thing to do with the world's seeds is lock them away in an isolated, frozen bunker and surround it with a few thousand polar bears. All right, so the polar bears just happen to live there, but the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is very much a reality. Located on a snow-covered island in the Arctic Ocean, the Norwegian facility consists of three chambers buried 300 feet in the side of a mountain. The facility has the capacity to store 4.5 million different seed samples. With the aid of its own electric machinery, the vault keeps everything on ice. If a generator should, the permafrost should maintain low temperatures. And while Svalbard might not quite hold up to those Tibet-toppling tsunamis in "2012," at 430 feet above sea level, it should withstand rising sea levels. In fact, the vault's designers think it should withstand everything short of a direct nuclear strike. So far, 400,000 seed samples from 22 countries have entered the buried halls of Svalbard. These stocks back up established food crops and prepare us should an altered environment require farmers to depend on new and modified plant species.

2. Extraterrestrial Doomsday Ark

Seed and gene banks around the world stockpile genetic data, providing backup files on everything from Joe the sperm donor to the extinct Indian Cheetah. That's great news, but, what happens if we lose nearly everything? Enter the New York University-based Alliance to Rescue Civilization (ARC), which, along with the European Space Agency, really wants to establish a vault on the moon. The members foresee a lone redoubt, buried deep beneath endless lunar wastes. In its depths, they hope to store all human knowledge on hard disk, including DNA sequences, technological information, agricultural instructions and, yes, maybe even a copy of "2012." The more ambitious stages of the plan call for a sealed Earth-like habitat in the lunar vault and even a staff of human employees -- eventually a human colony. You may be wondering what good a lunar vault of complete human knowledge would do for a scrappy band of post-apocalyptic wanderers on a forsaken Earth. Well, ARC plans for them to tune into radio transmissions from the moon, perhaps from one of 4,000 heavily fortified radio receiver stations on Earth. Each of these stations would remain constantly tuned in to the apocalypse's only radio station for instructions on rebuilding society. ARC hopes to install the first stage of the project by 2020.

1. Off-World Colonization

Even the idea of a lunar ark hinges on the existence of human survivors on a habitable Earth. But what if there's nothing left? What if something on the scale of the Hadean Eon meteor bombardment occurs and turns the surface to magma? What happens when the sun eventually swells to consume both the Earth and its ark-laden moon? The answer is something both real-life scientist Stephen Hawking and fictional space emperor Leto Atreides II agree on: Humanity must scatter itself among the stars. "The long-term survival of the human race is at risk as long as it is confined to a single planet," Hawking told BBC Radio 4 in 2006. "Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or nuclear war could wipe us all out. But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe." In the meantime, however, travel-hungry earthlings could attempt to stave off catastrophe by cleaning up their environment, establishing a sustainable culture and maybe giving world peace a try. Who knows? If we succeed, we might have a culture worth spreading to other worlds.