How long can we survive in the face of massive famine?

If several crops such as wheat, maize, rice, and barley were to simultaneously go extinct overnight, with no hope of ever being able to grow them again, how long would it be before we lost huge swaths of the population to famine? Would we be able to substitute/maufacture food to replace them? Or would humanity be royally screwed?

Check out “The Great Starvation Experiment.” It’s a fascinating read.

Basically, a human being can survive for an absurdly long time as long as they get some food, no matter how minimal. People in first-world countries are massively overfed, and populations have survived for centuries in marginal environments (such as Greenland). How many people would live all depends on how quickly alternative foods can be devised. If someone lives in an environment with abundant variety of foods, they will probably be ok. Populations that depend wholly or mostly on one specific crop (such as rice) will probably die pretty quick.

Do we still have oats, rye, potatoes, taro, and other staples? Or are you asking if we could survive without any of the high carb/starch crops at all? What about peas, soy beans, and lentils?

Has somebody been reading “No Blade of Grass?” (Mid-1950s disaster novel about the collapse of civilization after a crop plague kills off all grasses, including cereal grains.)

If we still have soybeans and potatoes, we will probably squeak by without massive starvation. We will have less meat in the diet, as most factory-farmed cattle, swine and chickens have maize as the basis of their diet nowadays.

Food riots would be inevitable while agriculture adapts to a different set of standard crops.

Thanks for the reference solosam, I’m reading up on it now.
And Gorsnak; I was thinking of just those crops in particular, plus a variety other species in the same family (poaceae).

I like “The Windup Girl.”

Obligatory Onion Link. They’re shooting people for iphones. What do you think will happen when there’s no food in the stores?

In the long run, we could replace all of those foods. But in the short run? Yeah, mass starvation. It takes on the order of a year for a new crop to grow, and several years for a farm to really adapt to a new crop, and we don’t have food reserves to last that long.

It varies with rainfall, temperature, variety and so forth, but it only takes about 3 months for a new barley, beet or bean crop to grow in warm climates, about 4 for maize, carrots, potato or wheat. It’s only when you start getting into cold regions that you need anything like year to grow a crop.

3 months without *adequate *food is unlikely to be fatal for most of the human race. So the major hurdle to replacing our cereal crops isn’t the amount of time to grow the crop. The problem is the time taken to produce the seed.

We just don’t have enough root or pulse seed material available to replace cereals in the next season. I’m unsure how long it would take to ramp up seed production, but even with a dedicated global effort we’d have to go through at least 2 full growing seasons. So that means that it would probably be 12 months before we could even think about harvesting enough pulses and root crops to produce maintenance calories.

That was probably true 40 years ago. In the modern world a farm can, and routinely does, completely alter its production type in a single season in response to market forces. There’s so much science in modern agriculture that so long as you follow the manual you can get 90% of maximal production first time you plant a new crop.

Current global food reserves are about 2 weeks. So any major crop failure means we don’t have enough food to last that long. But as others have said earlier, so long as the transport networks and social order can remain intact, we can supply starvation rations of ~10% of normal intake that will keep people alive for years.

In theory, with perfect planning and everything going well, I suspect we could come through this scenario with 90% of the population alive. The majority of the loss of life would be confined to the developing world where they just don’t have the bureaucracy or physical infrastructure to distribute and allocate food.

By ramping up pulse and root production, distributing enough of the crops to maintain starvation calories and while still maximising seed production, we could come out OK. Of course that ignores all the potential social problems that the situation would produce in the real world. That’s the real wild card.

I think you need to also look at byproducts for these crops as well. I was amaized to find corn is the primary medium for making penicillin.

You are correct. It’s not lack of food that will kill people the most, but each other.

In fact, it wouldn’t even take food crops becoming extinct overnight, as a more likely scenario is that food couldn’t get to city dwellers due to some event like terrorists blocking the transportation arteries.
As most people in the west live far from the food source and everything is transported, they are far more vulnerable than people in poor countries.

In the end, the west might be destroyed not by enemies, but by it’s overdependence on technology.

<The majority of the loss of life would be confined to the developing world where they just don’t have the bureaucracy or physical infrastructure to distribute and allocate food. >
Sure about that? In the developing world, the city/ town dwellers would just go home to the village where they will still growing some form of food.
It’s only the west that is so arrogant as to believe that it can exist indefinitely with technology and divorce people from the land that supports them.

Yes, one of the issues would be whether the global chaos that resulted would disrupt efforts to ramp up replacement crops. North Americans might subsist nicely as they consumed their body reserves, but there are parts of the world where people have not had seven fat years yet. Then there’s the question whether the government would adequately supply some areas or abandon them, how it would ensure proper distributions of food.

If it’s strictly a numbers exercise, we’d survive. If the details of distribution had to be worked out, many areas would starve. Any aid to Africa? Really, while we’re dying at home? Japan or China etc. importing food? Isn’t the home front more important? IIRC even somewhere like Holland is so densely populated, it has to import food. Not a problem now, because it has the commerce to pay for it. If the commerce collapses or can’t cover the cost, then what? Ditto places like Hong Kong or Singapore.

While I know that a lot of people still believe that the developing world is populated by peasants, or that peasants are capable of feeding the developing world, neither is true.

All you need to do is look at a list of countries that are self sufficient in food, or conversely countries where there is no hunger. Almost no developing nations at all are on the lists, while almost all developed nations are. By and large developing nations depend upon the developed world to feed them.

The typical developing nation is not populated by peasant farmers. It is populated by the urban poor, with~50% of people living in urban areas, and a majority of the rest living in smaller cities and towns, not living as farmers.

The idea that millions of people are going to walk out of cities like Hanoi or Calcutta, and the surrounding countryside is somehow going to feed them is ludicrous. The idea that everybody in Hanoi and Calcutta have come from a village, and haven’t been born in the city, is almost as ludicrous.


“The West” is pretty much the only part of the world that manages to actually feed its own population, in addition to feeding the rest of the world.

The idea that people in the developing world are all peasant farmers with a close association to the “land that supports them” is a fantasy. The typical resident of the developing world is a city dweller, just like the typical person in the west.

The only difference is that the typical westerner can actually be fed by the resources within her won borders. The typical resident of the developing world is dependent on food imports to stay alive.

I have no idea where you are getting this idea that the developing world is populated by peasant farmers living in self sufficient communities, but while it’s a quaint notion it’s totally divorced from the reality.

Unfortunately that’s the mentality that would almost certainly predominate. Even if nobody is actually dying, first world food producers like Australia or the US are not going to be distributing starvation rations to themselves in order to feed the rest of the world. The populace is going to demand 100% of all food produced until it reaches an adequate maintenance level, at least. Which means that in reality the rest of the world will be without any food aid at all for at least 18 months. In that time there’s going to be a lot of deaths.

On the bright side, there probably wouldn’t be many actual wars. It’s not like anybody else is going to have huge amounts of food lying around to to take anyway, and an invasion will just result in crops being abandoned. Additionally, with no food available even the military isn’t going to be fighting any prolonged campaigns.

I’ve spent some time in India, and in the cities, there is a complex distribution network in order to get food to the consumer, even for poor consumers. I’m by no means an expert on agricultural distribution, but somebody is going to have to explain to me how Indian cities survive if rice, beans, dal and wheat are suddenly taken off the menu. I would imagine the same is true elsewhere in the developing world.

On another note: Would we be able to get by with food sources like insects or pigeons? A lot of places in the world don’t eat these, but maybe those would become more popular in this type of environment.

I expect that in such circumstances people would start “discovering” all manner of food they would have ignored previously. Hunger makes almost anything sound good.

I would expect there would also be emergency programs to get people to plant “victory gardens” in their own backyards… although there will also be mayhem from people stealing out of them. Get all those suburban yards uprooted and converted to growing potatoes and vegetables and you’ll go along way towards alleviating hunger, which means not only the rural folks but the suburban ones have decent prospects. Add in canned foods and perhaps a sudden upsurge in greenhouse and hydroponics kits for winter growing.

That doesn’t do jack for the average city dweller, though, who hasn’t the space for growing more than a few cherry tomatoes and a basil plant. Not just Calcutta but Tokyo and London and New York City are going to get really unpleasant.

It’s not so much a developing world “problem”, it’s the happy accident of history that there are areas of especially the first world where decent agricultural land was not settled by farmers until the last two centuries - so it is not even close to its carrying capacity. Add to that mechanization and decent government policies, and areas in the USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia manage to produce a massive surplus of grain crops on sparsely populated land using mechanized production. (The Ukraine and Russia might have been in that category if the government had not favoured ideology over practicality - not sure where they’re at now.)

But that’s the danger - if the infrastructure that supports mechanization breaks down - fuel, fertilizer, spare parts, new equipment, etc. - then the west also is screwed. All those mechanized farms across the prairies and central USA have ploughs, combines, and other equipment specialized for grain crops, corn, etc. If they switch sorghum, or quinoa, will the same equipment work? Definitely would need new and different equipment for potatoes - or press-gang feed and house millions from the cities to come dig potatoes by hand.

I think the scenario suggested would leave us with a fraction of the population, even in the West. Consider that a large part of the army in the USA is volunteers from the poorer areas of the country (just looking for a job), what will be their reaction to policies specifically targeted at, say, containing and not feeding non-productive inner cities? You know they would have to drag out the army to control the chaos.

I would think a more insidious scenario would be simply a world-wide failure of crops; not that wheat or rice disappeared, but rather that say, the whole northern hemisphere experienced a major crop failure. Even if we only got half the crop we normally do, supplies would likely disappear, prices would rise to 10x or more current levels, and the same scenario of “cutting off Africa” would follow. If the same phenomenon (weather?) also resulted in failures across the ricebowl of the world, the tragedy would be greater. Our current food situation is a precarious juggling act.

Nobody is going hungry…for long that is. As much as Blake seems determined to think that people outside the west are stunted children who rely on handouts from mighty whitey, people have been feeding themselves for many millenia.
Sure some countries have become used to a certain standard of living and many countries import staples; but upon closer examination of the facts, many of them are only staples because of availability not necessity. At the same time, several agrarian economies are heavily invested in cash crops.

So, you will see a period of (varying degree painful) adjustment. You will see people begin to rely more on local produce and a massive reduction in cash crops. There will certainly be a decrease in urban population and many urban centers which are far from food producing areas (like my own for instance) will see a massive reduction.

But, people will adjust.

Yes, the majority of food is grown locally, and the food from the west simply “tops up” local demand. The global distribution also helps to relieve local famines so a crop failure and drought (as happened in Africa the last few years) is not as serious as it could be.

In the 70’s and 80’s, we used to hear a great deal in Canada about the wheat shipments to China and the USSR. Capitalist policies in China have eliminated much of their shortfall, and the former Soviet countries are well on their way to proper production too.

I’m going to suggest AK84 is right, that the ones best able to weather the problem would be the rural, non-mechanized farms in the third world. They already grow a variety of food, so the failure of a specific crop might be serious but not fatal. The only problem will be dealing with marauding scavengers from any nearby cities, or with governments determined to take their food and force distribution even if it kills the goose that lays the golden yams.