On famines, food technologies and global shocks

This is a translation of a post in Portuguese I published with Vinicius P. Rodrigues on Tecnologias agroalimentares combatendo a fome | Exame, a blog belonging to a media outlet with opinions written by scholars. Our goals were to highlight the problem of the resilience of food systems and to draw attention to the works of Good Food Institute (GFI) and ALLFED; it’s targeted for Brazilian readers – as can be inferred by the examples and references used. I had sort of abandoned my plans of posting it here for a while, until my interest in the matter was revived by some highlights from the Food Systems Summit in September and some recent analysis on lab-grown meat by Neil Deullaghan (Rethink Priorities). Though it’s shorter (and a bit more superficial) than the EA Forum top posts I like to read, I am sharing it here because: a) I’d be interested in connecting with other people concerned with this problem in the context of Brazil and South America; b) more people should know about the global drought of 1976-1879 (it was just 150 years ago, and it wasn’t anything as cataclysmic as a major volcanic eruption) – finding out about it made me update my own (fuzzy) ITN estimates on this cause area.

Thanks to Vinicius (GFI-Brazil), who wrote the original version with me, Fernando Moreno (DoeBem), Ray Taylor and David Denkenberger (ALLFED), who generously read and commented on a previous version of this text. And of course, thanks to ALLFED and GFI for their work on improving food systems and for drawing attention to this area.

Caveat: this was written in May, a month before South Madagascar food crisis gained the news. If we were to write it again, this tragic event should obviously be mentioned.

Last year, fears were raised that the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to the collapse of food supply chains. Although this has not been confirmed, it would be a mistake to underestimate this risk. Historians sometimes warn that those who don’t study History are doomed to repeat it. Few of us have learned about the Great Drought (1877-79), the worst natural catastrophe happened in this country (and maybe in the continent), which killed between 200,000 and 500,000 Brazilians, causing mass migrations from the Northeast to the North and Southeast. Even fewer know that it was a global climate disaster, with a total estimate of 50 million fatalities worldwide between 1875-79, having mainly affected China (9-13 million) and India (5.5 million)[1]. The best current explanation for the event is a rare confluence of climatic factors in the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, plus an extraordinary El Niño[2]; but, as the authors of the study warn, it is an example of what could happen with the future increase in the frequency of extreme events.

Catastrophic famines have become rare thanks to economic and technological development (which has made food production, storage, transportation, and trade more efficient and reliable), social progress (according to Amarty Sen, democracies are unlikely to suffer widespread famines because they can force rulers to act against it), and cooperation. Today, calamities causing abrupt shortages in one region usually draw the attention of the rest of the world, so that we can transfer food from places where there is surplus.

This shows, however, some “weak spots” in this solution. The first is the marginalized population, such as the poorest people scattered around city limits or remote areas in the countryside, still living under the threat of food insecurity—reinforced by the recession and food prices inflation in the last year. If we have not yet seen a calamity, it is because the problem has been mitigated by cash transfer programs and philanthropic food distribution campaigns—which now receive fewer and fewer donations. Although necessary, these are one-off solutions; other projects seek to discuss the resilience of food supply chains in slums, either by connecting them directly to the countryside to avoid food overpricing.

The second problem corresponds to events that affect the global food supply, such as restrictions on trade and transport (caused by, e.g., conflicts), or climate events impacting the world production – such as the Great Drought of 1877. If this were to happen, we could see something analogous to the current competition for scarce medical supplies between countries happening with food—with serious aggravating factors. First, while it is possible to convert or adapt industrial plants to produce a different piece of equipment and thus re-establish their supply (as happened with the production of masks in 2020), this does not (currently) apply to agricultural production, which depends on seasonal harvests—even more so if the event is a climate catastrophe. Second, a food shortage could have an even greater social and political impact—after all, they say that the distance between civilization and barbarism is only three meals. This would imply conflict; as David Beasley, on behalf of the World Food Programme (WFP), said in his Nobel Prize speech: food is the path to peace.

Ultimately, the practical solution would be to make food production more independent of specific climatic and geographic conditions, and thus less susceptible to catastrophes (and to military blockades and sieges). After all, what agriculture does is using solar energy to transform carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere (or, in the case of livestock, from non-edible plants) into carbohydrates and proteins, stored in structures we can digest; but there are other ways of doing this, including industrial processes to store and produce nutrients in more efficient (and, even more important, resilient) ways. In Brazil, the international NGO Good Food Institute focuses on alternative protein production projects—such as meat made from plants or animal cells grown in laboratories. According to Prof. David Denkenberger, founder of ALLFED and author of Feeding Everyone No Matter What, there are several ways to turn non-edible vegetable matter (such as tree trunks and leaves) into food – by using technologies found in industrial plants (such as paper mills), or even by harvesting fungi[3].

This may sound as unnatural for some… But one of the great adaptive advantages of our species is the amazing variety of its diet, enabled by food preparation and production technologies; so that, unlike most animals, we are not dependent on food of a specific type or from a particular environment. Thus, lab-grown nutrients would be not a break, but a continuation of the innovative practices of our ancestors, who first tamed fire and plowed the land—thus enabling human flourishing in all regions, since the last ice ages to the hot planet of the next decades.

[1] Interestingly, one of the countries that experienced severe shortages, but no famine, was Ireland, which in the 1840s had its population decimated by the Great Famine. One of the possible explanations is precisely that, due to the previous tragedy, Irish society was more prepared. I hypothesise this is analogous to the fact that rich countries with frequent earthquakes (like Japan) are usually better prepared than poor countries with rare earthquakes (Haiti); or that countries that have had local outbreaks of coronavirus in the 2000s (like Hong Kong and Bahrain) responded better to Covid-19. This suggests that societies can endure shortages without suffering famines if they are able to prepare for it.

[2] Back then, a Scottish meteorologist, discussing the drought in Madras province, noted that the English colonial administration had already been warned that (a) irrigation works were needed to mitigate the problem, which would have been caused by (b) periodic cycles of solar activity. Theory (b) was incorrect, but it was hard to formulate a better theory with the avaliable data; notice, though, that recommendation (a) was not wrong.

[3] P.S. note: Prof. Denkenberger correctly highlights that an even better example would be turning natural gas into methane protein, which would be way more efficient than fungi. But everyone loves his “aha” moment, the realization people could eat mushrooms growing on trunks instead of starving after a nuclear winter.