Page 17 - Penn State Civil and Environmental Engineering Magazine
P. 17

 Research team to study
food resilience in the face of
catastrophic global events
By Sara LaJeunesse
   In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all become aware of how a global crisis can affect our access to food. But imagine the food security impacts
of an even worse scenario—an all-out nuclear war, a large asteroid strike, or a supervolcano eruption.
Such catastrophes could block out
sunlight, alter rainfall patterns, and contaminate water supplies, which could drastically affect our
food systems. An interdisciplinary team of Penn State professors, including Rachel Brennan, associate professor of environmental engineering, received $3 million from Open Philanthropy to study food resilience in the face of such catastrophic global events.
In a pilot study leading up to their new project, the researchers discovered that existing food reserves and seed banks are inadequate to ensure human survival after a major global catastrophe; that the breakdown of global transportation, communication, and economic networks following a catastrophe would decimate long-distance food trade and distribution, and that limited crop production might remain possible in certain locations post-catastrophe, but would need to be supplemented by alternative methods of food generation, such as converting inedible plant materials like wood into food.
With the four-year grant from Open Philanthropy, the team will expand upon these findings; develop, test, and optimize strategies for emergency food resilience; and produce recommendations for prudent planning for post-catastrophic food resilience. The project comprises several focus areas, including:
• Predicting and testing the environmental limits of cold-tolerant crop plants, such as barley, wheat, rye, and potato.
• Creating a detailed global inventory of available edible food resources and feedstocks for food production with a focus on “emergency” foods, such as tree leaves that can be used as vegetables; bark from birch and pine trees; and edible cones, seeds, gums, resin, and pollen.
• Developing a soilless “Emergency Greens Growing Box” that in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe could allow survivors to grow nutrient-dense microgreens for essential nutrients.
• Investigating the efficacy of growing edible aquatic plants on a mix of sugars derived from woody plants and wastewater, converting two inedible feedstocks into a food source.
• Examining long-term storage of existing and newly produced food, such as hot-air drying and freeze drying.
• Investigating behavioral responses to global catastrophes; for example, “panicky” responses such as runs on bottled water, bread, or canned goods.
“Our goal is to determine ways to significantly improve the food security, probability of survival and quality of life for as many people as possible following a global catastrophe,” said Charles Anderson, an associate professor of biology and the lead investigator on the project. “If successful, our project will accurately predict how much food could be produced in limiting environments using conventional agricultural methods and provide novel strategies for supporting human nutrition.”
Other investigators on the grant include Armen Kemanian, associate professor of plant science; Jesse Lasky, assistant professor of biology; Michael Jacobson, professor of ecosystem science and management; Francesco Di Gioia, assistant professor of plant science; John Pecchia, associate research professor
of plant pathology and environmental microbiology; Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science; Erin Connolly, professor and head of the Department of Plant Science; Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs, College of Agricultural Sciences, and affiliate faculty, School of International Affairs; Elizabeth Ransom, associate professor of international affairs; Edward Jaenicke, professor of agricultural economics; and Douglas Wrenn, assistant professor of environmental and resource economics.

   15   16   17   18   19