Food for a Crisis

Common plants can ease food insecurity in disaster scenarios, says Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources.

illustration of a person walking in a barren field with a checkerboard pattern under a stormy sky by Richard Mia


“Food security is a huge problem in many parts of the world. Climate change—increased drought, flooding—is a growing threat to subsistence agriculture in places like India and Africa. But there are other threats, too: nuclear war, the use of biological weapons. If we had a nuclear war, the sun would be severely blocked out from soot and ash fallout. We’d be frozen in the Northern Hemisphere for several years, unable to grow anything outdoors.

“In that scenario, where agriculture is going to be limited, we need foods that are adaptable to cold and low sunlight. We’ve focused our research on plants that can grow rapidly in low light with very low maintenance. One example we’ve found is Carolina azolla. This edible and nutritious common water plant can double its biomass in just two days with minimal effort and limited resources. This is very important in the water-energy-food security nexus. The three critical resources are integrated, and in disaster scenarios, important decisions need to be made to their best use; there are trade-offs, and water will also be needed to provide energy or for drinking.

“We’ve made some progress in the face of climate change: Millet, for example, is native to Africa, and we’ve been working to restore that to local communities there so they’re more resilient. But we’re just scratching the surface on exploring the potential of low-light, low-temperature plants for disaster scenarios, so finding fast-growing and nutritious food under severe food and energy shortages during possible catastrophic disasters will be an immense challenge.”