How to Collapse: Mass Starvation

The biggest threat to human survival is the sustainability of key crops under the stresses of rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.

How to Collapse: Mass Starvation
Photo by Edoardo Busti / Unsplash

When I speak to the average person about the implications of a warming planet, they tend to focus on things like rising sea levels, coastal-city inundation and wet-bulb temperatures.

Some mention chaos or collapse.

Few make the connection to mass starvation.

The world's food supply is highly dependent on several key crops, such as wheat, corn, soy and rice. While our diets are diverse, these key crops form the foundation of our diets. They are typically grown in regions of the world with large areas of fertile land.

The biggest threat to human survival is the sustainability of these crops under the stresses of rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. While these crops are grown in breadbaskets/ricebaskets around the world the failure of just one or two breadbaskets could have sizable impacts on food supply.

More crop failures = less food supply.

At first, reduced supply would translate into higher prices. We're seeing this today due to a combination of weak yields, export restrictions and the war in Ukraine (a big wheat producer). As more breadbaskets fail, there would be physical shortages. Bare shelves. Starvation.

The failure of multiple breadbaskets becomes increasingly likely as the world heats.

Research by Franziska Gaupp, Jim Hall, Dann Mitchell and Simon Dadson suggests in a world with 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the chance of multiple breadbasket failures rises:

Risks of simultaneous crop failure, however, do increase disproportionately between 1.5 and 2 °C, so surpassing the 1.5 °C threshold will represent a threat to global food security. For maize, risks of multiple breadbasket failures increase the most, from 6% to 40% at 1.5 to 54% at 2 °C warming. In relative terms, the highest simultaneous climate risk increase between the two warming scenarios was found for wheat (40%), followed by maize (35%) and soybean (23%).

Although the estimates vary, there are number of studies corroborating these findings. Bottom line: we know that a hotter planet means a higher risk of breadbasket failure.

What does breadbasket failure actually mean for supply?

According to a NASA study published in the journal, Nature Food, maize crop yields are projected to decline 24%, while wheat could potentially see growth of about 17%. Effects on crop yields are expected as early as 2030.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, by 2030:

  • Nearly all counties in Iowa will see corn yields that are more than 5% lower than they would have been without climate change. More than half will see declines of 10% or greater.
  • More than half of Minnesota counties will see soybean yields drop by more than 5% from what they would have been without climate change. Seventeen-percent will see declines of more than 10%.
  • Eight-percent of Kansas counties will see winter wheat yields drop by more than 5% from what they would otherwise be without climate change.

So what do we do to avoid mass starvation?

Over the past century, humanity has benefited from agriculture produced at scale. Numerous industrial and chemical innovations - machines, fertilizers, trucking - have reduced the human labor required to feed 8 billion people. Farming has become a highly concentrated industry relative to its past. Most of civilization doesn't know where food comes from, besides the grocery store. We've taken our food supply for granted, freeing us to do other things.

As the threat of food shortages knocks at our door, the only hope for feeding ourselves is to decentralize food production.

We can learn from what Britain went through during World War 2.

At the commencement of World War II in 1939, the United Kingdom grappled with a significant challenge: it imported a staggering 20,000,000 long tons of food annually, constituting a substantial portion of its dietary staples. This included approximately 70% of its cheese and sugar, nearly 80% of fruits, and about 70% of cereals and fats. Overall, roughly 60% of Britain's calories came were imported.

As German U-boats disrupted merchant shipping, the British government recognized the imperative to rapidly adapt to food shortages. The alternative was to either starve or halt the import of munitions.

First, to ensure equitable distribution and prevent wealthier individuals from monopolizing resources, a rationing system was implemented. Despite the emergence of black and grey markets, most accepted rationing as a fair approach.

Unfortunately, rationing alone wasn't enough to ensure adequate food supply. Critically, the British radically overhauled their society to produce more food domestically. An integrated effort weaving war propaganda, education, cooperation and labor transformed British society into one that could materially feed itself.

Dig for Victory - The 1940's Experiment

During the war, everyone in Britain became a farmer. That's how they survived.

Various initiatives, such as rabbit and pig clubs, played a pivotal role. By 1943, there were 3,000 rabbit clubs and 4,000 pig clubs, producing enough bacon for 150 million breakfasts. Households tore ornamental plants out of their yards and every available square foot was used to grow vegetables. Moreover, public lands were converted into vegetable plots.

During the war, garden allotment numbers surged from 850,000 in 1939 to 1,750,000 in 1943, with an additional 10,000 square miles of land brought into production.

Food waste was minimized. Everything was used in cooking, animal feed or compost. Home cooking got creative substituting items that couldn't be produced domestically, like sugar.

These efforts proved effective, and by 1944 overall food consumption only decreased by 11%.

Global Heating, Mass Starvation, Agricultural Decentralization

Let's be realistic. As the planet heats up, humanity is no longer playing to win. We are playing to survive.

Whether extinction is the grand finale for humanity is unknown. That won't stop us from extending our existence as long as possible. That means adapting with war-time-level urgency.

Unfortunately, most people (including politicians) won't make real changes until faced with imminent mass starvation. We may only be several years from this point. Only then can we expect societal shifts required for survival.

Similar to Britain during World War 2, this shift will include decentralization of food production.

Over the long run, humanity cannot survive by relying solely on the scale and efficiency of breadbaskets or ricebaskets that could be wiped out by unfavorable weather.

To supplement potential breadbasket shortfalls, a significant portion of society will need to return to the agricultural lifestyle of our ancestors. We will all become gardeners and public arable lands will be designated for urban farming. While decentralized agriculture remains susceptible to heat, drought, etc. it diversifies the risk more widely.

Of course, unless some kind of low-cost robotic labor exists, a society that expends more man-hours producing food rather than goods and services will undergo significant declines in its standard of living.

Finally, I must make clear that this is only a mitigation strategy. It's not a solution. The decentralization of agriculture only buys humanity time. What we do with that time is what matters in the end.