The Future of Food in Apocalyptic Scenarios

A French farmer inspects wheat in his field in Bantouzelle, France, August 4, 2016. In the apocalypse, food might not be so bountiful. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

Sure, the apocalypse has been nigh for a while now. But lately the thing feels especially nigh. In the parlance of our times: it's nigh AF.

We're inching ever-closer toward war (perhaps of the nuclear variety) with North Korea. Members of President Donald Trump's administration are fighting to back out of the landmark Paris agreement aimed at fighting climate change. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.

But even in times of great sorrow and uncertainty, amid the collapse of civilization as we know it, one thing remains true: you gotta eat. And even if your life is reduced to rubble—literally or figuratively—it doesn't mean you have to go without a nice balsamic reduction or blueberry crumble. Certainly life as a dystopian gourmand would present its difficulties, but it might not be impossible either.

Allie Wist, an artist who works for Saveur magazine, re-imagined what our food would look like in a world ravaged by climate change in a project titled "Flooded." The results look tasty. The project focuses on an East Coast diet—Wist lives in New York—which would become heavily reliant on the rising seas. Think: sea scallops, algae gelatin and resilient mustard greens.

"Part of this [essay] is dystopic," Wist told NPR in a profile this week about the project. But it's also about practical changes the human race will have to make if climate change continues apace (for instance: desalinating ground water contaminated by the rising seas).

But while climate change certainly threatens our way of life—and very existence—things could also tumble out of control far more quickly in, say, some sort of global conflagration akin to World War III. In that case, there's ample opportunity to jazz up military-issued food as you fight for control over the globe.

In a project called "From MRE to Michelin," Chef Chuck George repurposed pre-packaged, just-add-hot-water MREs—or meals ready-to-eat—into fine dining. Ingredients like plastic-wrapped diced pears, peanut butter and crackers became a neatly presented vegetable taco pasta, as detailed this week on the site My Modern Met.

Along with George, videographer Jimmy Pham and photographer Henry Hargreaves used the project to re-imagine bland military foods from across the world, which could prove a handy guidebook should that World War break out.

But with a nuclear holocaust seemingly closer than ever—atomic scientists this year set the "Doomsday Clock" to a level not seen in more than six decades—our new food reality could prove more difficult than adding a pinch of pizzazz to MREs. Certainly those sturdy packaged meals could last. In fact, MREs, along with huge quantities of canned foods, are typically favorites among so-called doomsday preppers. People truly worried about nuclear war often have bunkers lined high with cans of all sorts, some MREs, peanut butter and, of course, Spam. Those rations—and of course the requisite Twinkies, Slim Jims, energy bars and countless bottles of water—could come in handy.

Studies in the '80s, amid increased Cold War tensions under President Ronald Reagan, predicted mass food shortages after a nuclear war. Dr. Alexander Leaf of Harvard wrote in 1986 about a likely collapse of agribusiness post-nuclear war and how crops would spoil as survivors were thrust into local warfare over food. A particularly rosy sentence Leaf wrote in the book, "The Medical Implications of Nuclear War," read: "The early death of millions of humans and animals following a major nuclear war would not sufficiently compensate for the reduced available food supplies."

More recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross found in 2013 that a so-called limited, regional nuclear war involving just 0.5 percent of the global stockpile could drop global temperatures enough to drastically affect our ability to grow key crops. Soybeans and corn throughout the U.S.'s heartland would particularly suffer. More than a billion people worldwide would face starvation.

In short, nuclear war is a nightmare for a whole host of really, really obvious reasons, including severely limited access to food for the lucky survivors. God forbid the nuclear winter comes, the doomsayers on cable TV whom many of us mocked may just get the last laugh, interspersing chuckles with forkfuls of processed, canned ham.