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This is a Draft Amnesty Week draft. It may not be polished, up to my usual standards, fully thought through, or fully fact-checked. 

This is a quick writeup of an idea I was thinking about a couple of years ago, the goal here is to give you the gist of the idea as a starting point for researching it more thoroughly.

In my opinion the relevant research to be done is into the minimum cost per person-year of stored food, properly accounting for storage costs, financing, spoilage, and creating a nutritionally survivable diet.

There are other angles you could also look at like how to deal with distribution, how much food is already (de facto or deliberately) stockpiled, or how to pitch this idea to governments.

The idea

Governments (or someone else) could potentially store a lot of food for the long term quite cheaply. Back of the envelope maths says something like $10 per person-year of stored food, or around 0.05% ($3B) of US GDP to ensure a year of food for every person in the US.

This would be beneficial across a wide range of catastrophe scenarios, and could be a complement to or a replacement for the idea of resilient foods (like turning wood into digestible carbs). In the event of a disaster, it might take a long time (months/years) for resilient foods to be scaled up to a sufficient level, meaning a large stockpile would still be valuable.

Additionally many sorts of food-reducing disasters may not last more than a few months or years anyway (especially when adjusted for the fact that it could be more like a reduction in crop yields rather than a total lack of food), in which case this could be a sufficient solution and not just a complimentary one.

Nuclear winter particularly is generally predicted to result in at most years (not decades) of reduced (but not eliminated) crop yields, and so storing a few years worth of food could be a sufficient and in fact more robust solution than the large amount of research/coordination required to scale up resilient foods. That said I'm pretty sceptical of nuclear winter[1] anyway, but there are other sorts of catastrophes (great power conflict, widespread crop blight) where it certainly wouldn't hurt the situation to have several years of food for everyone on the planet stored somewhere.

Given that the $10 per person-year is likely optimistic, I would guess that this is a quite good but not fantastically  great intervention in marginal cost effectiveness terms. E.g. LEEP is ~$14 per DALY, and this would be ~$10 per ~40 DALYs if a year of food is enough to tide someone through a disaster in which they otherwise would have starved. But this is obviously only realised if such a disaster occurs.

I think it could be something like PEPFAR though where it's very simple and scalable so you could convince governments to adopt it and bear most of the cost. Also you might imagine that it reduces the risk of civilisational collapse or extinction more than the marginal $/DALY number implies.

The back of the envelope maths

I'm assuming you would store some food that is cheap + calorie dense + has a long storage life in big, government-operated, centralised locations to keep the storage costs down.

Taking palm oil as an example of a high calorie/$ food, and assuming that you can extend the shelf life by freezing it/putting it in an inert environment/not worrying about the rancid taste because you would otherwise starve to death, we get:

  • 9000 kcal/kg
  • $1/kg
  • Shelf life: 1 year, I'm going to assume you could extend that to 20 years by preserving it. I don't really see how it could go off in a low oxygen environment but maybe there's something I don't understand about how food goes off

Assume a person needs 1800 kcal/day to stay alive (likely pessimistic), so 660,000 kcal/year. It would cost $73 to buy that much palm oil, $3.7/year if you stored it for 20 years. This doesn't account for storage costs and financing, hence the $10 per person-year estimate above.

If this was operated at country-scale this would also drive up food prices, I don't expect this to make too much difference though because if you are storing it for 20 years then you would only need 5% more calories produced, assuming you destroy it at the end of the 20 years. Also it might make sense to do something other than storing food until it's completely unusable.

  1. ^

    For basically the reasons outlined in these posts





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I think you'd have to freeze oils, which would be pricey. I've heard that vegetable shortening (US Crisco) lasts ~forever, at the cost of being truly terrible for you. You'd need more than that, though, because eating 100% fats would kill everyone off due to protein deficiency at some point. You'd also need some source of vitamins, or you'd see a lot of scurvy and similar diseases.

Most preppers interested in long-term food storage (and/or members of the LDS church, which has long advised food storage and sells long-lasting foods to all) predominately store things like beans and rice. On the market, those are significantly more expensive than buying the goods in non-long term packaging (examples here (rice) and here (beans), although I'm sure the government could get economies of scale).

On the other hand, you could realize some value from the food near the end of the usable period, either by selling it or donating it. Some governments might choose to feed it to prisoners. Sadly, that might be an improvement over what they currently feed prisoners....

Just about oils specifically:

My best guess is that either freezing or storing them as a liquid in an inert environment could be quite economical, very rough OOM maths:

For frozen storage

Apparently ice costs ~$0.01/kg to produce, this is just for the upfront cost of initially freezing, oil would be similar/lower because it has a lower heat capacity and similar freezing point. The cost for keeping it frozen is not that easy to work out, but still I would say "well the square-cube law takes care of this if you are freezing in large enough quantities" so I would be quite surprised if it were way more than the $3.7/year depreciation cost (OOM logic: even if it melted and you re-froze it every day that would only cost $3.65/year).

For liquid storage

You can store crude oil for something like $1.2 to $6[1] per barrel per year, with the cheapest method being putting it in salt caverns, but other methods are not way more expensive. This corresponds to about 2 person-years of calories with palm oil ($0.6 to $3 per person-year for storage). There are some reasons to think storing an edible oil[2] could be more expensive:

  • You would probably need to backfill with an inert gas to preserve it
  • Other food-grade safety related things? Although I think this would be a misguided concern tbh because it's intended for a use case where you would otherwise starve, so it only has to not kill you, it could be quite contaminated

And reasons to think it would be cheaper:

  • You would be storing for a known, very long, amount of time, so you could save on things required for quick access to the oil (like pumps)
  • It's easier to handle, less flammable, no noxious gases etc

I would guess the cheaper side would win here, as backfilling with an inert gas doesn't seem very hard if you have a large enough volume. Apparently oil tankers already do this (not sure about salt cavern storage) so this may be priced in already.

  1. ^

    "Global Platts reveal that the price of onshore storage varies between 10 and 50 cents per barrel per month.", then adjusted based on 158 litres/barrel, corresponding to ~140kg of palm oil, which is 2 person-years worth

  2. ^

    You couldn't actually use palm oil in this case, because it's a solid, but e.g. sunflower oil has similar calories/$

Thanks for mentioning resilient foods! It is true that more food storage would give more time to scale up resilient foods. Stored food could be particularly valuable for some countries in loss of trade scenarios. Some have suggested that getting the World Trade Organization to change its rules would result in more food storage automatically. Still, I think the priority now is spending a few hundred million dollars total on resilient foods to research, pilot, and plan for them. If we extend your proposal for 20 years and for the world, then you are up to ~$1 trillion. I think this is significantly less likely to happen and lower cost effectiveness than resilient foods.

Food stockpiling already exist as mitigation strategy in many countries and international aid organisation (FAO, UNHCR etc.). Not just to tackle short-term non nuclear winter (< 3+ years) scale for GCR. The goal is not only to feed population, but also to stabilise food price in such events. Stabilisation of food price is important to prevent local and global famines, especially in an event where communication and industrial infrastructure collapse.

The reason GCR focused orgs are focused on the production scalability and deploy-ability of resilient food is partly to ensure adequate nutrition and calorie requirement, but this could also stabilise food price for diminishing food stock in such an event.

Thus, food price movement is often a catalyst for instabilities in food insecure regions and structurally unstable regions (e.g. First and Second Arab Spring).

Freezing food and the 'cold-chain' distribution of require access to stable energy supply, which fuel inequality and poverty in many unstable regions don't have access to, we could postulate this would also happen in many GCR scenarios. Particularly in higher-likelihood human caused GCR (war --> nuclear exchanges) food and fuel infrastructure is often weaponise as political tokens, rendering stockpile and transportation infrastructures around such supply chains vulnerable to attack.

Corentin wrote an excellent yet underappreciated 3-part long posts on our reliance on fossil-fuel which maybe of interest to you , part 3, in particular discussed under-researched areas, which are relevant to the topic. 

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