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Message from David Denkenberger, ALLFED Director and Cofounder

Planning for global disasters is one of those things we do because someone has to, but we hope to never actually experience such an event. Yet here we are, nearly a year into a global pandemic. 

Though we don’t currently expect the COVID-19 pandemic to cause food shortages on the scale that ALLFED studies (we typically study catastrophic events that could lead to a global food shortage of 10% or greater), the pandemic is significantly exacerbating food insecurity around the world, and the impact of the pandemic was large enough to trigger a preparatory ALLFED response. 

Early in the pandemic, it became clear that the threat of disease was only one factor putting people at greater risk of death, and that the cascading threats associated with the pandemic in combination with other existing conditions could dramatically increase food insecurity. To address this, we published the report Cascading Risks from COVID-19 to Food Systems, which we distributed to relevant organizations and members of governments. Then, in partnership with the team behind the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, we launched the Food Systems Handbook, which is a global, collaborative effort to collate necessary resources for governments and organizations to enable more data-driven responses to food crises around the world. 

Throughout the pandemic, we fostered an online environment for doctors, engineers, researchers, and others in South Asian and East African countries to provide them with the COVID-related resources they needed. These efforts and more are detailed in the pandemic section here. We have also commissioned a COVID-19 learning review to more clearly and objectively identify where we excelled and what we could have done better (highlighted in the lessons learned section). 

Fortunately, there has been a lot more to 2020 than just the pandemic.

It has been exciting to see ALLFED's continued growth this year. Research output has been increasing steadily. We submitted or are about to submit seven new core ALLFED journal articles, including three NASA-funded projects: hydrogen-consuming microbes as a protein source for use in catastrophes and in space/refuges, and chemical synthesis of fats. Additionally, we had eight peer-reviewed journal articles accepted related to COVID-19 and to general global catastrophic risk (GCR), and we produced three other publications and a roundtable. ALLFED’s work was also covered in an article in Business Insider in January, which was picked up by dozens of media outlets around the world and translated into at least 15 languages. 

The ALLFED team is also growing: it now spans 14 countries and 4 continents, and we were thrilled to welcome Jaan Tallinn as our newest board member. Our team now has more than 40 active paid and volunteer members. 

We learned a lot about working in a crisis and made many good connections with international organizations including the United Nations’ World Food Programme and Food and Agricultural Organization, with local government representatives, and with researchers and professionals working directly on COVID-19 and food-insecurity issues. We also applied what we learned about our internal responses this year to develop major ALLFED response and resilience projects, including an analysis of ALLFED's critical functions, our first response plan, and a readiness framework. 

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the Centre for Effective Altruism,  the Survival and Flourishing Fund and Jaan Tallinn for their grants and funding this year.  We are also grateful to all our donors who have enabled our work, and in particular Peter McCluskey, Luke Stebbing, Patrick Brinich-Langlois, Taymon Beal, and Josh You for their generous support over several years now. 

With additional funding, we could accomplish even more towards our mission of feeding everyone no matter what. I continue to believe that ALLFED’s work offers the highest expected value at the margin for improving the long-term future and saving expected lives in the present generation. Thus, I have donated half my income to this effort for the past 5 years and will again participate in the Facebook Giving Tuesday counterfactual match, an important element of our annual fundraising (and a good way to potentially double the impact of one’s donation). 

I hope you will join me in trying to take advantage of the matching donations first thing in the morning on Tuesday, December 1, and that you will also consider supporting ALLFED.

Kind regards,

David Denkenberger


Introduction to ALLFED

The Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the probability that if a global disaster or catastrophe occurs, then survivors will be able to consume sufficient nutrients to maintain civilization. We focus primarily on developing alternative food solutions for various catastrophes, particularly those that could block the sun’s light, such as an asteroid impact, a supervolcanic eruption, or nuclear winter. We also focus on scenarios involving the loss of electricity, infrastructure, or industry, which could be caused by an extreme solar storm, a narrow artificial intelligence (AI) cyberattack, or an extreme pandemic. We are most concerned with the events listed in the graphic below, as well as the cascade of threats that any of these events could trigger (e.g., climate change leading to a multiple breadbasket failure, leading to a refugee crisis, which then enables an even more devastating pandemic than COVID-19, and so on). While each of these catastrophes might individually have a low probability of occurrence, the odds that some type of global disaster or catastrophe will occur is much higher, and so we focus on alternative foods that can help ensure survival through any of these events.

The above graphic shows the global food production loss (bottom axis) that could result from a global disaster or catastrophe. ALLFED’s work focuses on alternative foods that could help ensure humanity’s survival and the continuity of civilization through any of these events. 

Learn more about our work at allfed.info.

COVID-19 pandemic work

The ALLFED team have been fortunate to be in a unique position to study and assist with threats associated with COVID-19. 

Hundreds of millions of people face famine in the Middle East and in African countries, not only because of the impacts of COVID-19 and especially the lockdowns, but also because of the lesser-known locust swarms and other seemingly unrelated but contributing factors. Our COVID-19 work on famine, food insecurity, and cascading threats, detailed below, is ongoing, and we’ve focused on work that both addresses the threat of famine and builds knowledge on how approaches to this threat can scale if an even greater catastrophe strikes. Accordingly, our work won’t just help people who are impacted today — these efforts will also help us be better prepared if either the consequences of COVID-19 become worse or if an even greater catastrophe occurs.

Cascading Risks from COVID-19 to Food Systems

In March, Sahil Shah, Mike Hinge, and Aron Mill authored Cascading Risks from COVID-19 to Food Systems, a report that provided valuable early warning and analysis of multiple threats including COVID-19, locust swarms, and others. From the report’s introduction,

“This report explores some of the existing stressors caused and worsened by COVID-19 around the world, and demonstrates current and future pathways to protracted food insecurity, unless early actions are taken. Along with the health impacts, COVID-19 has affected labour markets, migration, transportation, the food supply chain, international trade and economic livelihoods. This briefing attempts to highlight risks that could increase food insecurity and to provide potential mitigation measures.”

Sahil wrote about the findings of this report in an article he coauthored for the Atlantic Council, Earth Day 2020 call for action: Mitigating the global food crises associated with COVID-19. We also presented the report to members of the World Food Programme (WFP), multinational bodies, and to government representatives from countries with some of the most at-risk populations. As a result of this work, Sahil also joined the World Bank’s Famine Action Mechanism technical working group, helping them predict drivers of famine and how and where it might break out. 

Our EA Forum post on the report led to a collaboration with Newspeak House, the Coronavirus Tech Handbook’s creators, on the development of the Food Systems Handbook.  

The Food Systems Handbook

In June, Aron, Sahil, and a set of volunteers worked with over twenty experts, from more than a dozen organizations, over three days to build the Food Systems Handbook (FSH). The FSH aims to mitigate and minimize the threat of widespread famine in regions of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America arising from COVID-19, locust swarms, and pre-existing vulnerabilities, among other factors. It was created to be the go-to resource to find information to respond to food system shocks, by comparing case studies, lessons learned, and best practices from field and policy interventions. We aim to help decision makers generate more data-driven decisions by providing them the right information at the right time.

Thanks to these early contributors and others, the FSH’s Airtable has grown to include over 400 links, reports, papers, and resources. The community that’s grown around the FSH includes dozens of NGOs (including Mercycorp and OXFAM), government groups (including DEFRA and USAID), the private sector (including Bayer and Calysta), and multilateral organizations (including the WFP and the Food and Agricultural Organization).

The handbook received input from people around the world, was quickly put into use by major organizations, and grew throughout the year as our understanding of looming food threats improved. The UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and other organizations have commented on the handbook’s usefulness. 

With risks to food systems still playing out, especially as a result of cascading threats, we continued work on the Food Systems Handbook in October. Sahil coauthored a second article with the Atlantic Council, Data gaps, siloed thinking, the Global Food Crisis, and what we can do. Sahil and Aron held a series of follow-up roundtable discussions, covering areas such as data gaps in food systems and siloed thinking, and they produced a report on the conversations in mid November.

COVID-19 outreach in India and East African countries

In March, Ray Taylor travelled to India due to concerns about the possible number of COVID-19 fatalities, and also because of the country’s large manufacturing capacity. He consulted with government and corporate representatives regarding various issues related to COVID-19, with special focus on respirators, rubber tubing, and oxygen, and later focused on indoor humidifiers and correcting micronutrient deficiencies as a potential cost-effective secondary prevention measure in the tropical Global South. 

He and a small ALLFED team, including Aditya SK, connected with doctors, industrial manufacturers, engineers, government officials, researchers, and others. The team built collaborative online resources, including WhatsApp and Facebook groups, Google Docs and Sheets, and other online material to share information relevant to COVID-19 and to match expertise and resources with the people and areas in need. They are also working with local volunteers to translate this information into some of India’s key languages. 

Sahil led an effort in East African countries regarding vitamin D fortification research, which modeled the economic and healthcare impacts of fortification. This work was shared with East African governments and the V20 secretariat. We also provided a COVID-related literature review to both the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, and we connected the Tanzanian Cereals and Produce Board to suppliers of vitamin D for fortification. We were invited to the Kenyan government’s technical working group on micronutrients, within which we brought the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), who are now advocating for vitamin D fortification in Kenya. Briefings were also provided to the Tanzanian and Ethiopian governments, analyzing the impact of COVID-19, locust swarms, floods, and droughts, as well as mitigation measures they could take.

COVID-19 research and publications from Joshua Pearce’s team

Given that much of our regular research looks at repurposing industrial capabilities for production of alternative foods, we were well-positioned to pivot early and focus on alternatives to ventilators to help hospitals in need. This work was primarily led by Joshua Pearce through his Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab (MOST). They also published seven new pandemic-related works and hosted a roundtable (below and on a dedicated Appropedia page). 

Peer-reviewed COVID-19 publications from MOST: 

“To prepare for the next pandemic, this study reviews the state-of-the-art of open hardware designs needed in a COVID-19-like pandemic”: Distributed Manufacturing of Open-Source Medical Hardware for Pandemics

“This study develops a distributed manufacturing solution using only an open source manufacturing tool chain”: Parametric nasopharyngeal swab for sampling COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses: Open source design, SLA 3-D printing and UV curing system

“As a case study, open source face masks were 3-D printed in PEKK and shown not to warp upon widely home-accessible oven-based sterilization”: Open source high-temperature RepRap for 3-D printing heat-sterilizable PPE and other applications

A simple and easy-to-build portable automated bag valve mask (BVM) compression system can serve during acute shortages and supply chain disruptions as a temporary emergency ventilator: Partially RepRapable automated open source bag valve mask-based ventilator

Other COVID-19 activities from MOST:  

On Appropedia: MTU 3-D printing PPE

On Opensource.com: Contribute to open source healthcare projects for COVID-19

On The Conversation: As the coronavirus interrupts global supply chains, people have an alternative - make it at home

On the Wikifactory’s Viral Response roundtable: How to audit and secure accreditation for your Covid-19 product 

Core research

Our core ALLFED research continues to focus on the alternative foods that could be scaled up most quickly, at the lowest cost. Our NASA-funded research on alternative foods for space missions could also be relevant to existential risk: if we needed to repopulate the Earth, these alternative foods could be used in repopulation refuges built on Mars, or underground or underwater on Earth. Through collaborations, we have also produced a number of publications relevant to global catastrophic risk (GCR). (Affiliations for each of the publications below are listed at the end of this post.)

Potential of microbial protein from hydrogen for preventing mass starvation in catastrophic scenarios

Juan B. García MartínezA* , Joseph EgbejimbaA,B, James ThroupA, Silvio MatassaC , Joshua M. PearceA,D , David C. DenkenbergerA,B

Status: published

Abstract: Human civilization’s food production system is currently unprepared for catastrophes that would reduce global food production by 10% or more, such as nuclear winter, supervolcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts. Alternative foods that do not require much or any sunlight have been proposed as a more cost-effective solution than increasing food stockpiles, given the long duration of many global catastrophic risks (GCRs) that could hamper conventional agriculture for 5 to 10 years.

Microbial food from single cell protein (SCP) produced via hydrogen from both gasification and electrolysis is analyzed in this study as alternative food for the most severe food shock scenario: a sun-blocking catastrophe. Capital costs, resource requirements and ramp up rates are quantified to determine its viability. Potential bottlenecks to fast deployment of the technology are reviewed.

The ramp up speed of food production for 24/7 construction of the facilities over 6 years is estimated to be lower than other alternatives (3-10% of the global protein requirements could be fulfilled at end of first year), but the nutritional quality of the microbial protein is higher than for most other alternative foods for catastrophes. Results suggest that investment in SCP ramp up should be limited to the production capacity that is needed to fulfill only the minimum recommended protein requirements of humanity during the catastrophe. Further research is needed into more uncertain concerns such as transferability of labor and equipment production. This could help reduce the negative impact of potential food-related GCRs.

Food in space from hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria

Kyle A. AlvaradoA,B*, J. B. García MartínezA, Silvio MatassaC, Joseph EgbejimbaA,B, David C. DenkenbergerA,B

Status: in revisions

Abstract: The cost of launching food into space is very high. An alternative is to make food during missions using methods such as artificial light photosynthesis, greenhouse, nonbiological synthesis of food, electric bacteria, and hydrogen oxidizing bacteria (HOB). This study compares prepackaged food, artificial light microalgae, and HOB. The dominant factor for each alternative is its relative mass due to high fuel cost needed to launch a payload into space. Thus, alternatives were evaluated using an equivalent system mass (ESM) technique developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Three distinct missions with a crew of 5 for a duration of 3 years were analyzed; including the International Space Station (ISS), the Moon, and Mars. The components of ESM considered were apparent mass, heat rejection, power, and pressurized volume. The selected power source for all systems was nuclear power. Electricity to biomass efficiencies were calculated for space to be 18% and 4.0% for HOB and microalgae, respectively. This study indicates that growing HOB is the least expensive alternative. The ESM of the HOB is on average a factor of 2.8 and 5.5 less than prepackaged food and microalgae, respectively. This alternative food study also relates to feeding Earth during a global agricultural catastrophe. Benefits of HOB include recycling wastes including CO2 and producing O2. Practical systems would involve a variety of food sources.

Methane Single Cell Protein: securing protein supply during global food catastrophes

Juan B. García MartínezA* , Joshua M. PearceA,D,E , Jacob Cates, David C. DenkenbergerA,B

Status: submitted

Abstract: A catastrophe such as supervolcanic eruption, asteroid impact or nuclear winter could reduce global food production by 10% or more. Human civilization’s food production system is unprepared to respond to such an event, and current preparedness centers around food stockpiles, an excessively expensive solution given that a global catastrophic risk (GCR) scenario could hamper conventional agriculture for 5 to 10 years. Instead, it is more cost-effective to consider alternative food production techniques requiring little to no sunlight.

This study analyses the potential of single-cell protein (SCP) produced from methane (natural gas) as an alternative food source in the case of a catastrophe that considerably blocked sunlight, the most severe food shock scenario. To determine its viability, the following are quantified: global production potential of methane SCP, capital costs, material and energy requirements, ramp-up rates and retail prices. In addition, potential bottlenecks to fast deployment are considered.

While providing a higher quality of protein than other alternatives, the production capacity would be slower to ramp up. Based on 24/7 construction of facilities, 7-11% of global protein requirements could be fulfilled at the end of the first year. Results suggest that investment in production ramp up should aim to meet no more than humanity’s minimum protein requirements. Uncertainty remains around the transferability of labor and equipment production, among other key areas. Research on these questions could help reduce the negative impact of potential food-related GCRs.

Synthetic fat from petroleum as alternative food for global catastrophes

Juan B. García MartínezA* , Kyle A. AlvaradoA,B, David C. DenkenbergerA,B

Status: submitted 

Abstract: Human civilization’s food production system is unprepared for global catastrophic risks (GCRs). Sun-blocking catastrophes such as supervolcanic eruption, asteroid/comet impact or nuclear winter could collapse the agricultural system. Responding by producing alternative foods requiring little to no sunlight is more cost effective than increasing food stockpiles, given the long duration of these scenarios (5-10 years).

This preliminary assessment analyses the potential of synthetic fat from petroleum as an alternative food source in the case of a sun-blocking catastrophe, the most severe food shock scenario. To this end, the following are roughly quantified: global production potential, capital costs, material and energy requirements, ramp-up rates and retail prices. Potential resource bottlenecks are considered.

While providing a macronutrient largely absent from other alternative foods, the production capacity would be slower to ramp up compared to low-tech alternatives. Based on 24/7 construction of facilities, 12-78% of global fat requirements could be fulfilled at the end of the first year and it would take 1-3 years to fully meet the requirements. Significant uncertainty remains on topics such as production potential, capital and variable costs, food safety, transferability of labor and equipment production. A pathway for future research is presented

Digital Resilience and Digital Fragility: When The Machines Stop or the Case of Catastrophic Electricity Loss Events

Authors: Alexander HerwixF , Ross TiemanA, Morgan RiversA, Aron MillA, David DenkenbergerA,B  

Status: about to be submitted

Abstract: Currently, we understand digital resilience as the capacity to leverage digital systems to increase societal resilience in the face of shocks such as large disasters. The varying success of dealing with the recent COVID-19 pandemic has vividly demonstrated the value of this form of resilience. For instance, the Taiwanese response to COVID-19 has likely saved thousands of lifes so far, not least due to the effective use of digital systems. However, our understanding of digital resilience is still nascent and more work is required to flesh out all of its assumptions and implications. We contribute to this cause by playing the devil's advocate and asking the question: What happens when the machines stop? More specifically, we investigate the likelihood and possible effects of catastrophic electricity loss events (CELE) on critical infrastructures (e.g., information and communication technology (ICT) sector, energy sector, food sector, etc.) that are increasingly reliant on digital systems. We find that in such scenarios digital systems play a dual role as enablers of societal resilience as well as potential sources of vulnerabilities that could reinforce catastrophic consequences. We contribute to the theoretical development of digital resilience by conceptualizing this dual role of digital systems as two entangled perspectives on the resilience of socio-technical ecosystems: digital resilience and its flipside digital fragility. Based on this understanding, we delineate considerations for a research agenda on digital resilience that acknowledges the opportunities and risks introduced by the increasing digitization of societies.

Current projects 

ALLFED is engaged in a wide variety of projects to further examine alternative foods, with the goal of adding new, cost-effective foods to our current list of alternative food options. We are also pursuing more projects to increase our understanding of electricity or industry losses caused by catastrophes, especially regarding the impact of high-altitude electromagnetic pulses (HEMPs) and large-scale solar storms. We do not expect all of these projects to be finalized into publications, given that new information could render some projects to be less promising or not to our comparative advantage. We frequently review and reprioritize research questions to maximize impact. We also recognize that some of the most impactful actions we can take involve emergency outreach, preparedness, and response planning, and thus some of our current projects extend beyond research. 

Though these are projects we’re currently working on, we could still use more funding for many of them to ensure we can see them through to completion.

Current research

Alternative foods and GCR survival research 

Electric-powered bacteria producing acetic acid (vinegar) — We are doing two NASA-funded research projects on this alternative food: for use in space or refuges, and for use in a global catastrophe. A refuge contains a small population that could repopulate Earth if everyone else died, such as from multiple engineered pandemics. The refuge could be underground, in the ocean, on Mars, or in other locations that are independent of the Earth’s surface.

Chemical synthesis of sugar/glycerol — Space/refuge (NASA-funded). This project involves making food from CO2 and water without biological organisms. 

Cost and scaleup of low-cost, cold-tolerant plants — This project focuses on identifying food that could be transplanted to grow in the tropics in the case of nuclear winter or potentially other sun-blocking events. In particular, our research looks at sugar beets, barley, and potatoes.

Nutrition for humans with inexpensive alternative foods — We have calculated that a mixture of alternative foods could meet nutritional needs, while not exceeding nutrient limits as a result of overconsumption of the same food. However, the poor of the world will likely not be able to afford significant amounts of the more expensive alternative foods necessary for proper nutrient balance. This project looks at the least expensive alternative foods, including seaweed, cellulosic sugar, petroleum wax transformed into fat, food-processing residues, natural-gas single-cell protein, sugar beets, barley, potatoes, and others.

Cost and scaleup of krill — We are investigating original Soviet documents indicating that krill (small shrimp) might have been identified as a backup food source for nuclear winter.

Toxicity of leaf protein concentrate — We have taken a number of samples of common agricultural residues and tree leaves, with which we will develop a low-cost method of analyzing the toxicity of leaf protein concentrate, expanding on previous work.

Open-source leaf grinder — We have built a prototype leaf grinder for leaf protein concentrate.

Agricultural residues for ruminants — We are using GIS to estimate the transportation distances required to move residues to ruminants after a catastrophe.

Loss of industry, electricity, or other infrastructure

Transporting water without electricity/industry — The loss of electricity/industry is likely to be sudden, so the provision of water within the first few days will be critical. Because relocation of people would be disruptive and difficult, we are using GIS analysis to estimate how far people could transport water back to their households, such as with bicycles.

Infrastructure corrosion as a result of losing industry — This project is a thesis at the National University of Singapore, and we are investigating low-cost ways of preventing the corrosion of infrastructure in the event of a loss of industry, such that reactivation would be easy.

Agricultural production without electricity/industry — Previous work assumed agricultural productivity after losing electricity/industry would be equal to the productivity before the Industrial Revolution. We are looking into whether this estimate needs to be refined.

Protecting infrastructure in nuclear winter — Water and sewer pipes would freeze in nuclear winter. We are investigating the cost effectiveness of solutions to prevent freezing, such as piling soil on top, excavating and installing heaters, and running hot water through the pipes. Thanks to the Open Philanthropy funded nuclear winter project for sharing climate data for this project.

Global impact of solar storms — We are updating our understanding of the impact on electrical infrastructure of extreme solar storms in order to better plan responses.

Global impact of HEMPs — We are updating our understanding of the impact that multiple HEMPs could have on electrical infrastructure, in order to better plan responses.

Speed of recovering electricity/industry after HEMPs — Unplugged electronics and cars will generally be spared damage from HEMPs. We are investigating whether it would be feasible to use smart phones, tablets, or laptops to substitute for damaged control systems on critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants. We are also investigating hybrid cars as a source of backup power.

Other ongoing projects

Emergency outreach

A potentially high-impact area which could help improve survival after a global catastrophe is that of large-scale emergency responses to ensure the global public receives necessary survival information. We have expanded our outreach efforts to include identifying processes for setting up systems to notify people about ALLFED's interventions in the catastrophe, especially with respect to sharing information on search engines and social media, partnering with existing emergency response organizations, and so on. In addition to significant research, we have also spoken with representatives from the Google Alerts team, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to better understand current emergency response communication plans.

Resilience and response planning

A number of resilience and response projects were already underway when the pandemic struck. COVID-19 provided further impetus for us to finalize some of our earlier projects, and it also provided useful learning opportunities that gave rise to new projects.

  • ALLFED built our first formal response plan to be activated for events that could trigger a massive food production shortfall, as well as for other notable events or crises.
  • We produced an accompanying handout for all team members, so that everyone at ALLFED knows how to activate a response and, if needed, how to request support in the event that their safety is compromised.
  • We formed an ALLFED response team, which has undergone initial training (with further training scheduled).
  • We developed a broader ALLFED readiness framework to establish the basis for ALLFED’s overall resilience.
  • We have also identified key steps to maintain internal organizational continuity and other critical functions in the event of a loss of key team members or other crises and emergencies.

We expect these to be living documents that will evolve as we learn more, and we expect the accompanying training sessions to become regular events.

We would like to thank our crisis and catastrophe planning consultant Gareth Jones for his lead on many of these projects, and our Director of Operations Sonia Cassidy for making them happen. 

Additionally, we have had a number of conversations with other EAs and EA organizations regarding the coordination of an EA-based resilience and response effort. If this is something you are interested in and/or would like to discuss, please reach out to us.

Financial Mechanisms

We are working to encourage governments to better fund planning and preparedness, which can ensure food security in the event of a global crop shock by increasing awareness of the likelihood and severity of the impact of such scenarios. 

This work would first require holistic risk assessments, including assessing hazards, identifying connections between the hazard and its impact on various food-related outcomes, and determining the total expected cost of such outcomes. Then we would create a financial product (e.g., a type of catastrophe bond, a parametric insurance policy, or an exotic option) that funds the planning and preparedness to recover food supply in a global catastrophe. Finally, we would work with the finance industry either to create a new entity who would be able to sell the financial product, or to find an institution that could.

In the past year, we spoke to over 100 delegates, including government ministers and executives from financial conglomerates, about innovative disaster-risk finance products for tail risks to food security. Additionally, we are scoping a potential “catastrophe bond” for locust swarms, which would accelerate recovery and control from future locust outbreaks, potentially preventing millions of people from facing food insecurity or even famine. In Germany, we met with representatives from the multinational chemical companies BASF and Bayer to discuss their potential roles in providing the chemicals that would be needed for this catastrophe bond. We have been discussing this concept with several East African governments, and with financial institutions that could possibly issue the bond. 

We are currently working on a white paper to increase investment into resilience of food systems to tail shocks, through modeling the economic impact of climate-related food shocks and the potential impacts on the ability for countries to pay back their debt. We are working with the Emerging Markets Investors Alliance and the think tank E3G to encourage Sovereign Credit Ratings agencies to incorporate food security risks into their methodology.

We pursued work on financial mechanisms in several countries. We worked with the Tanzanian Cereal and Produce Board and the WFP procurement team to explore the use of options and futures to reduce WFP procurement costs and to provide much needed liquidity for farmers. We are now scoping resilience bonds for the South Australian government to fund a project that would repurpose production facilities to develop single-cell proteins for human consumption in a catastrophe. We are also looking at bonds for seaweed and other types of aquaculture, financial mechanisms which could potentially be a part of Bangladesh’s Climate Prosperity Plan. 

Projects in need of funding

There’s always more research and work to do. Below are the projects we’d take on with more funding.

Response and resilience after loss of industry, electricity, or other infrastructure

Building heating for losing electricity/industry — Because the loss of electricity/industry is likely to be sudden, keeping people warm is an urgent need. Options we want to investigate include retrofitting ovens to burn wood for heating.

Transporting fuel and food without electricity/industry — Initial investigations indicated a significant capacity for using large ruminants to pull light-duty vehicles. Subsequent analysis will use GIS to determine the feasibility for this option in locations across the globe.

Scaling up farming tools without electricity/industry — There are sufficient numbers of large mammals that can plow and harvest Earth’s current cultivated area, and one farmer can feed approximately 20 people with equipment pulled by animals. However, people would need to scale up this equipment very quickly after the loss of electricity/industry.

Backup global shortwave radio communication system for losing electricity/industry — Rapid communication is critical to maintaining cooperation over large areas. Small shortwave radios can be used to communicate across oceans and therefore provide the most economical backup system. We plan to recruit volunteers (such as news agencies), with hardware including unplugged backup power, to be able to respond quickly to a loss of electricity/industry scenario.

Integrated analysis of global response to losing electricity/industry — This work would put together analysis of how to meet water needs, heating, transportation, food, and other essential services, while also taking into account the competing demands of each.

Interventions for losing civilization and cooperation from losing electricity/industry — An extreme catastrophe could cause the loss of cooperation outside groups of perhaps 100 people, and may mean a return to hunting and gathering globally. The last time the world was hunting and gathering there were only a few million people total, suggesting that a reasonable prior for this scenario would be that ~99.9% of people could die. However, there may be interventions to allow the continued use of farming in this scenario, which would dramatically reduce mortality and make recovery of civilization more likely.

Alternative foods research

Integrated analysis of global response to agricultural catastrophes — This work would put together analysis of different alternative foods, taking into account competing demands for land, energy, transportation, and other resources.

Interventions for a sun-blocking catastrophe collapsing civilization and cooperation— The reasonable prior for this scenario could mean the loss of even more than 99.9% of the population. This would be due to losing cooperation outside of groups greater than ~100, in addition to the challenges of farming or finding food in an extreme climate scenario. Still, there may be interventions we could do ahead of time to produce small-scale alternative foods and maintain farming in the tropics (but with cold-tolerant seaweed and crops). Orderly migration may be possible with advanced planning.

Interventions for a moist greenhouse effect (40°C global temperature rise) — Toby Ord estimated in the Precipice a one in a thousand probability of existential risk this century due to climate change, largely due to locking in a moist greenhouse effect. We would estimate the feasibility of maintaining industrial civilization (with eventual colonization of space) in this scenario. The physical space on Antarctica is adequate for industrial civilization, but alternative foods produced on other continents would likely be required, such as foods grown in air-conditioned greenhouses, single-cell protein powered by renewable hydrogen,  electrosynthesized vinegar, and foods created by chemical synthesis. Though there would be significant time to develop these solutions, the primary value of this research would be the value of information on how much to prioritize climate change as an existential risk.

Facilitating the construction of demonstration plants 

We believe it could be valuable to retrofit paper mills to produce human edible sugar, which we have identified as an alternative food that could be produced quickly and inexpensively in a global catastrophe. There are companies commercializing purpose-built factories for turning lignocellulosic biomass (a plant’s dry matter) into sugar. But we think it would be valuable to facilitate a demonstration plant that actually retrofits a paper mill to produce edible sugar.

It could also be useful to transform petroleum wax into edible fat, another alternative food which is expected to be low cost. We would like to run an experiment demonstrating this process, to optimize the factory components for large-scale production, and, if promising, to facilitate construction of a pilot plant.

Other activities and accomplishments

In addition to our core focus areas highlighted in this post, our team made other contributions to the collective knowledge of global catastrophic risk, resiliency, and alternative food solutions. We’d especially like to thank Amanda Cassidy for her help in creating many of our presentations.

David Denkenberger, our director and cofounder, discussed ALLFED’s work on surviving nuclear winter with Business Insider, in “A full-scale nuclear winter would trigger a global famine. A disaster expert put together a doomsday diet to save humanity.” We were excited that the article presented our scope of work in a positive and accessible way, and that it was picked up by media outlets around the world and translated into several languages. 

David was a coauthor on the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) journal article, Accumulating Evidence Using Crowdsourcing and Machine Learning: A Living Bibliography About Existential Risk And Global Catastrophic Risk. His 2019 pandemic work with David Manheim was published as Review of Potential High-Leverage and Inexpensive Mitigations for Reducing Risk in Epidemics and Pandemics

As part of an effort to further existential hope, David discussed global resilience and peace in the Foresight Institute’s “Flourishing Futures from COVID-19: 70 opportunities for turning the current crisis from catastrophe to eucatastrophe.” 

Joshua Pearce, our co-originator, wrote about the threat of nuclear winter in an article in The Conversation

Sonia Cassidy, our director of operations, coauthored New Partnerships for Co-delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (International Journal of Disaster Risk Science).

Ariel Conn contributed the AI section for the Global Challenges Foundation’s latest report, “Global Catastrophic Risks 2020.” Media coverage of the report included BBC Business Daily and the UN Dispatch podcast. Ariel was an invited speaker at Isodarco in January, and she spoke about ALLFED and catastrophic risks with an EA policy group over the summer.

Aron Mill, our research associate and team coordinator, represented ALLFED at the EAGxVirtual conference where he introduced many of our new volunteers to ALLFED’s work. He also presented ALLFED’s work to Alan Robock and Brian Toon’s nuclear conflict climate modeling team, which is funded by Open Philanthropy

Sahil Shah participated in several initiatives where he promoted both technical and financial alternative solutions to food security problems. Among these initiatives were the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development’s panel Malnutrition of Mothers and Children in India During COVID-19 (14:30 onwards), and the think tank Bridge India’s Food Security in India during COVID-19 (17:50 to 24:00). Sahil also presented (abstract here, on page 4) at the World Summit on the Information Society Forum 2020, a UN initiative. 

Sahil was made an honorary fellow in the Jahn Research Group. Whilst visiting there, he reviewed and provided recommendations to Prudential Regulatory’s Authority climate adaptation scenarios and costs to food security. He was also involved in peer reviewing the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) Global Risk Assessment Framework concept note.

Sahil was made an inaugural fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center, where he works primarily on the intersection of agri-tech and global food security. He has coauthored briefings for this group with ALLFED volunteers Mike Hinge and Samuel Brenner. 

The ALLFED team 

Team 2020 snapshot

  • The ALLFED team now spans 14 countries and 4 continents.
  • We’re excited to welcome Jaan Tallinn as our newest board member.
  • All members of ALLFED’s Board of Advisors serve on a voluntary basis.
  • Out of 15 core team members, the majority started with ALLFED as volunteers, and some continue in this capacity to date
  • Four volunteers have transitioned into paid roles as of mid-November, and two others are in the process of doing so.
  • Overall, over 25 new volunteers joined ALLFED this year.
  • Our longest-serving volunteer has now been with ALLFED for over 4 years.

Amanda Cassidy and Ross Tieman, socially distanced in British Columbia, May 2020.

The ALLFED Board of Advisors

We want to thank all of our board members for their support, advice, and guidance this year, and especially for their additional inputs as we experimented with projects that were beyond the typical scope of our work. We are especially grateful to Anders Sandberg and Robin Hanson for their unwavering support, ideas, and critique throughout the year.

In 2020, we also had the great pleasure of welcoming Jaan Tallinn to the ALLFED Board of Advisors. Jaan was a founding engineer of Skype and Kazaa, and he also cofounded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) and the Future of Life Institute (FLI). 


Our volunteers are an important part of ALLFED’s success. 

We would like to thank all the volunteers who have volunteered with us in 2020. 

In particular, we wish to thank Al Hundley, who has been volunteering with us right from the beginnings of ALLFED. Tim Fist has been our invaluable GIS project lead for nearly two years now. Megan Jamer, our editorial volunteer, has been instrumental in writing and editing this post, along with ALLFED’s previous annual reports.  

We would also like to acknowledge contributions by: Emma Abele, Kyle Alvarado, Samuel Brenner, Michael Brown, Vojtech Brynych, Zong Hao Keh, Emily Hewitt, Michael Hinge, Marisa Jurczyk, Mattathias Lerner, Daisy Newbold-Harrop, Jemma Payne, Sienna Rhazouani, Aditya SK, Joseph Small, Florian Ulrich Jehn, Noah Wescombe, Jake Willis, and Jia Yang Li, all of whom helped to further ALLFED’s work in 2020.

Currently, most volunteers find us through their involvement in the effective altruism community. We are proud to be an effective altruism–aligned organization with a comprehensive volunteer program, which seeks to ensure a mutual fit between our team and the volunteer and to be of benefit to both. In 2020, we introduced a range of metrics to better evaluate the contributions volunteers make to our organization as well as the impacts that volunteering with ALLFED may have on our volunteers’ careers and lives (to be reviewed at the end of the year).

As a fully remote organization, we welcome people from all over the world, as well as from all walks of life and with diverse work and educational experience. Like many EA-aligned organizations, our team unfortunately lacks diversity, despite our solid commitment to this value. We encourage individuals of all genders, sexualties, age, races, and cultural backgrounds to apply to join our global, remote team! 

Although the majority of our volunteers have focused on research, opportunities are available across all areas of ALLFED’s work and we also welcome communications, operations, and HR volunteers. Learn more about our volunteer program or, to apply, feel free to complete our volunteer interest form.

ALLFED UK Oxford Team Day, February 2020, pre-Covid.

Lessons learned 

When considering the lessons learned in a given year, it’s often tempting to focus on actions that didn’t work out. However, in this unique year, one of the biggest lessons we learned was how capable we were at effectively and efficiently supporting the ALLFED team. 

With the stress of the pandemic, lockdowns, and increased isolation, it was more important than ever to build and foster a resilient, cohesive team. We are especially grateful to Sonia Cassidy, Aron Mill, and Maciej Pilachowski for their continued efforts to ensure the ALLFED team thrives. What we accomplished this year was due in large part to their unfaltering support, which helped the whole team maintain energy and morale throughout the year.

But of course, we also learned from activities and efforts that did not go to plan. 

Early on in the pandemic, when so much was unknown, it was clear that much of the research we’ve done in the past could be relevant to relief efforts. However, the connections were somewhat indirect, and the best pathways by which we could help were not immediately obvious. Given our previous research on repurposing industrial facilities to develop alternative foods, we initially hoped we might also be able to offer guidance regarding the repurposing of facilities to create ventilators and other personal protective equipment (PPE). While Joshua and the MOST lab did provide meaningful contributions to that space, it soon became apparent that this was not as productive an area of focus for the rest of the ALLFED team. At that time, we also saw the early-warning indications that food insecurity was about to become a much greater threat around the world, and we then pivoted to our own areas of expertise — food and nutrients — which led to the work listed in the pandemic section of this post. 

The uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic also shed light on our natural tendency to focus on the most pressing problems, even if those problems weren’t always quite as well aligned with the ALLFED mission or with our strongest capabilities. We learned from this experience and have established plans to help us better respond in the future:

  • We developed many of the response and resilience plans mentioned above.
  • We are in the process of creating a decision-making aid to minimize bias and improve our response time when another event occurs.
  • We introduced a host of new organizational systems to better track and manage our time and resources.
  • We hosted a series of internal training sessions to build team awareness of these new tools, including scenario-based response exercises.
  • We’ve commissioned a COVID-19 learning review to more clearly identify where we excelled and where we could have done better.

Finally, we were also reminded throughout the year that some progress will naturally get slowed down in the middle of a pandemic. We had hoped to be a fully registered US 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization by now (we are currently fiscally sponsored by the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs), and we had hoped to have a new website completed. However in both instances, though we’ve moved ahead with each, it will now likely be next year before we have updates to share.

Giving Tuesday 2020

We are enormously grateful for last year’s Giving Tuesday donations. On Giving Tuesday in 2019, we received $43,601 in donations, with further $32,995 in Facebook match funding. Our thanks also go to the EA Giving Tuesday team, and Avi Norowitz in particular, for helping to coordinate.

As you’ve seen throughout this post, we have a lot of projects underway, and there are even more we’d like to launch to improve our understanding of alternative food options in a catastrophe and to build a stronger, global alliance to help us provide these food solutions to the people who need them if a catastrophe occurs. We need your support to make that happen. If you like what you’ve read in this post, please consider supporting ALLFED’s work this year. Furthermore, if you are interested in potentially increasing your impact, we invite you to join us in participating in Facebook’s Giving Tuesday matching program.

The EA Giving Tuesday team is finalizing their instructions and recommendations, but if you sign up for their newsletter, they will keep you updated about this year’s Facebook match and how to effectively prepare. Otherwise, please check back here or at www.eagivingtuesday.org in the coming days for more information about how to maximize the chances that your donations to ALLFED will be matched by Facebook. Match funding will likely run out in seconds, so donating fast is essential on December 1, when the match begins at 08:00:00 a.m. EST (05:00:00 a.m. PST).

We will update this section next week, when more information becomes available. 

Of course, you can always give an unmatched donation to ALLFED any other day of the year! Learn more on our donation page.


A. Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED).

B. University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK 99775, USA.

C. Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, University of Naples Federico II, Via Claudio 21, 80125, Napoli, Italy.

D. Department of Material Science and Engineering and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI 49931, USA.

E. Department of Electronics and Nanoengineering, School of Electrical Engineering, Aalto University, FI-00076 Espoo, Finland.

F. Cologne Center for Information Systems, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany.

* corresponding author

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Thanks for this interesting post :)

I'd be interested to hear a bit more about ALLFED's thinking regarding how doing the "Projects in need of funding" would reduce existential risk. 

For example, to what extent are they aimed at reducing risks of extinction, vs risks of unrecoverable collapse, vs risks of unrecoverable dystopia? Or perhaps some of the projects are primarily aimed at saving lives in the nearer-term (rather than longtermist concerns)? Or at helping ALLFED itself develop (e.g., by gaining credibility, networks, funding), to increase how effectively you can pursue other projects which have more direct relevance to longtermism?

And to the extent that ALLFED expects these projects to achieve longtermist goals, is that because ALLFED thinks:

  • The project would reduce the number of deaths as a fairly direct result of a sun-blocking catastrophe or loss of electricity/industry, which then fairly directly, meaningfully reduces extinction risk
    • This would imply ALLFED thinks extinction risk as a fairly direct result of those things isn't already super low
  • The project would reduce the number of deaths as a fairly direct result of one of those catastrophes, which then reduces the chance of further catastrophes and conflict, which then in turn reduces extinction risk
  • The project would reduce the length of time between the initial catastrophe and the recovery, which would reduce extinction risk
    • Perhaps because the longer that interim time is, the more chance there is of further catastrophes or conflict
      • Perhaps because that period would be anarchic, and during it there's a meaningfully increased risk of states or nonstate actors doing dangerous things that increase extinction risk
  • A version of one of the above, but focused on risks of unrecoverable collapse or unrecoverable dystopia rather than risks of extinction
  • In general, reducing numbers of deaths and global instability is just a good proxy for reducing existential risk, even if one hasn't explicitly mapped out the interim steps
  • [Something else]

(This is just a quick way of slicing up the possibilities; you don't have to categorise things that way, of course.)

(Also, I'm aware that these questions overlap a bunch with things already said in this post and in prior ALLFED-related posts and presentations. Feel free to point me to relevant parts of those things, request I make these questions more specific, etc.)

One of the proposed projects on which I currently feel particularly unsure of the longtermist theory of change for is:

Building heating for losing electricity/industry — Because the loss of electricity/industry is likely to be sudden, keeping people warm is an urgent need. Options we want to investigate include retrofitting ovens to burn wood for heating.

At first glance, it's hard for me to imagine why this would be a high-priority variable to influence if we're adopting a longtermist perspective (though it's more plausible to me that it could be a decently cost-effective way to - in expectation - save lives in the coming generations).

Thanks for the feedback. We do think there is a compelling case for saving expected lives in the present generation cost effectively. On the long-term future, we do not have a quantitative model for how important extinction versus unrecoverable collapse versus negative trajectory changes are in these scenarios (and in terms of mitigation from interventions). So I would say it is closest to:

reducing numbers of deaths and global instability is just a good proxy for reducing existential risk


As Nick Beckstead said:

In this way, our situation seems analogous to the situation of someone who is caring for a sapling, has very limited experience with saplings, has no mechanistic understanding of how saplings work, and wants to ensure that nothing stops the sapling from becoming a great redwood. It would be hard for them to be confident that the sapling’s eventual long-term growth would be unaffected by unprecedented shocks—such as cutting off 40% of its branches or letting it go without water for 20% longer than it ever had before—even taken as given that such shocks wouldn’t directly/immediately result in its death. For similar reasons, it seems hard to be confident that humanity’s eventual long-term progress would be unaffected by a catastrophe that resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths.

I will say it again this program needs to be fully funded. But I do wonder if the solution to this is genetic engineering.

Corn and potatoes are well adapted to the areas people live. Both are incredibly calorie dense with a high number of calories per acre. All GMO foods in existence now are further optimized to grow for the present sunlight and UV conditions.

What research has been done on creating GMO foods that are optimized to grow in low levels of sunlight and high levels of UV?

Ideally there would exist a variety of nuclear winter crops that are optimized to grow in those conditions. But there might also be no surviving seeds that are optimized for a normal environment.

It should be possible to breed out or splice in kill switch genes that slowly disables nuclear winter genes after a few harvests. That way the food is optimized to grow every year as the environment changes. Eventually deleting their nuclear winter genes or allowing their post-winter genes to dominate.

What I want to know is with genetic engineering is it possible to preprogram our food to adapt to the changing conditions from the beginning to the end? Can we bake everything into the potato? Is there a limit to how much we can optimize low light level, UV and drought resistant crops?

If agriculture science has no incentive to develop these crops now and it would be impossible to develop them after a nuclear war then should the government step in to fund the science?

I think we need more dystopian movies to get nuclear winter taken as seriously as other existential threats.


I would also argue that nuclear winter lead to the late Bronze Age collapse and collapsed civilization again in 536. Maybe we can avoid collapse next time.

Toby Ord estimated in the Precipice a one in a thousand probability of
existential risk this century due to climate change, largely due to
locking in a moist greenhouse effect. We would estimate the
feasibility of maintaining industrial civilization (with eventual
colonization of space) in this scenario. The physical space on
Antarctica is adequate for industrial civilization, but alternative
foods produced on other continents would likely be required, such as
foods grown in air-conditioned greenhouses, single-cell protein
powered by renewable hydrogen,  electrosynthesized vinegar, and foods
created by chemical synthesis. Though there would be significant time
to develop these solutions, the primary value of this research would
be the value of information on how much to prioritize climate change
as an existential risk.

It looks like for me that survival of the moisture greenhouse is possible in altitudes above 5000- 6000 meters. But the main question is if the temperature rise will be uniform. The town Rinconada is 5100 meters high and it has the median temperature of 2C. Meanwhile the hottest city on Earth, Basra, reaches 50C every summer everyday. So people in Rinconada could survive. 

Also, the median elevation of Himalaya is around 6000 meters, they have 595 000 sq km and 52 millions people. 

Meanwhile, the ice of Antarctica will probably take hundreds of years to melt after the start of the moisture greenhouse, and until it happens, the land there can't be used. Strong rains and rivers also prevent living on the ice surface (though there are regions of ice in Antarctica with -60 C stable temperature and they could survive). 

More realistic moist greenhouse will result in stronger polar warming and weaker equatorial warming because of the polar amplification of the greenhouse effect. This means that the equatorial region will get additional 20-30 C warming and poles will get more than that (like +60). This again favours Himalaya as the survival place. 

What worries me is that there will be no stop from moist greenhouse to runaway global warming, as some regions of Earth could get close +100C in this scenario (like Persian Gulf) and the water may start boil there, creating never ending positive feedback loop.

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