How you can save expected lives for $0.20-$400 each and reduce X risk




The Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED) is a new EA-aligned charity with potential for high cost effectiveness in the global poverty and existential risk spaces. I have posted on the EA forum before about getting prepared for alternate foods (roughly those not dependent on sunlight that exploit biomass or fossil fuels) for agricultural catastrophes such as nuclear winter. This could save expected lives in the present generation for $0.20 to $400. Sun-blocking catastrophes could cause the collapse of civilization, and there are a number of reasons why humanity might not recover, including having used up the easily available fossil fuels. Not recovering from the collapse of civilization is one form of existential (X) risk because humanity would not fulfill its potential. In a recent EA forum post, I made the case that spending $100 million on alternate foods would be similar cost-effectiveness to AI from a far future perspective. I also argued that spending at the margin now would be an order of magnitude more cost-effective. This means spending now could save expected lives in the present generation at more like 2 cents to $40 apiece (but if I put this in the title, you probably wouldn't have believed me). ALLFED has an experienced team and board. With a very small budget, it has achieved a significant amount, including a book, nine papers, and four catastrophe planning sessions. It has plans to increase preparedness with targeted planning, media response, alliance building, and research. It is mostly volunteer and is funding constrained. I have donated 50% of my income the last two years to initiate the effort. ALLFED has tax-free status in the US, but arrangements can be made for other countries. I outline what could be achieved with different levels of funding and other ways to help. I am trying to find a host for the Facebook/Gates Foundation Giving Tuesday matching event.


Background and cost effectiveness of cause area

The greatest catastrophic threat to global agriculture is full-scale nuclear war between US and Russia, with corresponding burning of cities and blocking of the sun for 5-10 years. The best outcome is obvious: to prevent nuclear war, but this has been worked on for many decades and is currently funded at billions of dollars per year quality adjusted. Storing food would seem to be an obvious solution; however, it is  far too expensive (~tens of trillions of dollars) to have competitive cost effectiveness (and it would take many years so it would not protect us right away, and it would exacerbate current malnutrition). I have posted on the EA forum before about getting prepared for alternate foods (roughly those not dependent on sunlight that exploit biomass or fossil fuels). This could save expected lives in the present generation for $0.20 to $400 for only 10% global agricultural shortfalls like the year without a summer in 1816 caused by a volcanic eruption, and would be even more cost effective if sun blocking scenarios were considered. Current awareness of alternate foods is relatively low: about 700,000 people globally have heard about the concept based on impression counters for the ~10 articles, podcasts, and presentations for which there were data including Science (out of more than 100 media mentions). Also, many of the technologies need to be better developed. Planning, research and development are three interventions, which could dramatically increase the probability of success of feeding everyone, each costing in the tens of millions of dollars. Sun-blocking catastrophes could cause the collapse of civilization, and there are a number of reasons why humanity might not recover. Not recovering from the collapse of civilization is one form of existential (X) risk because humanity would not fulfill its potential. In a recent EA forum post, I made the case that spending $100 million on alternate foods would be similar cost-effectiveness to AI from a far future perspective. I also argued that spending at the margin now would be an order of magnitude more cost-effective. That is the focus of this post: what the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED) can do now.

ALLFED mission/vision

Mission: Increase the preparedness, readiness (knowledge, resources, technology) of world bodies, governments, corporations, NGOs/people to be able to feed everyone in the event of a global catastrophe

Vision: Form an alliance of key people/willing participants working to develop capability to enable response to global disruption of food supply


ALLFED team/board

The ALLFED team collectively has significant non-profit, for-profit and government experience. I am an engineering professor at Tennessee State University (TSU) with 76 publications. I have been working on this project since 2011, and a dozen of my publications are on this topic. Ray Taylor has experience working with UN affiliates. Elizabeth Dunn has experience in international program management, process improvement and operations across sectors. Al Hundley has worked in war-torn regions on communications equipment, and he won an Emmy. He has a background in political science and philosophy. Ariel Conn helps us with media and communications (she is full time at the Future of Life Institute (FLI)). She has a background in physics and communications. Michael Griswold is a student at TSU who is helping us with research and other tasks. Gareth Jones has a 35 year career in military service and organizational resilience and risk management.


The ALLFED board also has a wealth of skills and experience. Dr. Joshua Pearce is an engineering professor at Michigan Technological University with over 400 publications. Dr. Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh is the executive director of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). Dr. Anders Sandberg is a senior research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at the University of Oxford. Dr. Robin Hanson is an associate professor of Economics at George Mason University and a research associate at FHI. Karin Kuhlemann is a PhD candidate at University College London Department of Political Theory, and was a lawyer.


Less developed countries would be hit particularly hard by these agricultural catastrophes. We are glad that one member of our team and one member of our board are from less developed countries to help provide that perspective.



Research: This includes the Feeding Everyone No Matter What book, and nine academic papers on feasibility of feeding people in catastrophes and cost effectiveness of preparation. We have also made presentations at several conferences/universities including Davos, Switzerland, Gothenburg, Sweden, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Imperial College, Princeton and Cornell.


Planning: We have run four catastrophe planning exercises.


Communication & Media: We have had media coverage in 18 countries, over 100 articles, including Science, Wikipedia, Discovery Channel Online News, Gizmodo, Phys.org, and Science Daily; interviews on C-realm and Real Talk with Lee podcasts and Radio Alexandria. We have a database of contacts.


Organization: We acquired tax free status in the United States, created a new website, and built up a team and board.


A peer reviewed paper of ours estimated that work done so far has saved 10,000 to 3 million expected lives in the present generation because alternate foods has a small chance of being adopted given our current level of awareness.


In 2016, we ran an essay contest on preparedness and technology for agricultural catastrophes in cooperation with the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute and FHI. We contacted hundreds of agricultural departments around the world about this contest. Our hope was that we could get more people interested in the issue. There is a tremendous amount of unfunded research that gets done (e.g. bachelor’s and many master’s theses), so we were hoping to push that in a more effective direction. Unfortunately, we had a disappointing response to the contest. So in retrospect, it was probably not worth the money and effort (and we are not planning on doing it again). However, if anyone has ideas on how to access this untapped research potential, please let us know.


Support so far

TSU provided teaching release and funding for three students. A Centre for Effective Altruism grant is supporting some research (including the X risk cost effectiveness work). I have given 50% of my income over the last two years. Also, many people on our team including myself are volunteers. We have also had the help of over 40 total volunteers.

What different levels of additional funding could do in 2018

Our basic plans for 2018 are to continue research under the Centre for Effective Altruism grant. This could include using equipment I have at Tennessee State to see if some plants could grow in the tropics and nuclear winter (reduced temperature and precipitation, and high ultraviolet radiation). Also, a number of risks could cause widespread electrical failure, including a series of high-altitude electromagnetic pulses (HEMPs) caused by nuclear weapons, an extreme solar storm, and a coordinated cyber attack. Since modern industry depends on electricity, it is likely there would be a collapse of the functioning of industry and machines in these scenarios. As our current high agricultural productivity depends on industry (for example, for fertilizers) there would be mass starvation in these scenarios with our current understanding. However, there are solutions to our food and nonfood problems in these scenarios, and I plan to do a cost effectiveness analysis of these interventions. Another possible project is quantifying the cost per expected species saved by alternate foods. It turns out it is much easier to keep most animal species alive than to feed all people. These catastrophes could cause extinctions directly, but also starving humans would likely eat other species to extinction. So alternate foods could be a highly effective environmental intervention.


One big advantage of alternate foods is that they could reduce the chance of loss of lives and civilization if people just knew about them. Even without $100 million of planning, R&D and without cooperation between countries, it could be that 1 billion lives are saved if the sun is blocked if countries were just aware of alternate foods and tried to make them (and loss of civilization chance would be much lower). There are a few possible ways to get that awareness in time:

1)      A media response network of experts on X risk, and the mass media know to calls us if there is a catastrophe

2)      Social media: a message that will likely be viral after a catastrophe hits could spread fast enough to prevent chaos

3)      10-100 influential people know about alternate foods ahead of time, and they can get the message to the leaders. This could be someone like the food security champion of the country, like Tim Benton was for the UK. It could also include people in media and corporations.


Even if each of these options has a few percent chance of getting countries to try alternate foods given a catastrophe, and they each cost $10,000, they would be orders of magnitude more cost effective than the entire $100 million package.


We have successfully secured funding to cover operation costs at the current level for 2018. However, there are unrealized acceleration opportunities which additional funding would enable, such as: converting our database of contacts into a self updating useful tool for collaborators, further building the Alliance, and producing practical advice on how to feed people in a catastrophe.  Acceleration is valuable because every day acceleration of preparedness for alternate foods saves 100-40,000 expected lives in the presentation generation, and reduces existential risk by ~0.00003%.

Since most of our work is done by volunteers, we have significant capacity to increase our impact with additional funding by paying those volunteers and getting more hours. In the big picture, research, development, and planning for alternate foods can be done by people with transferable skills. For instance, experts in biofuels could figure out how to retrofit factories quickly to food production. Therefore, we have great capacity to scale up impact very quickly through requests for proposals (we are money- not talent-constrained).

Since I think in terms of orders of magnitudes, here is what ALLFED could do with additional funding:

$10,000: This would accelerate mechanisms to increase the chance of awareness of leaders given a catastrophe.

$100,000: We could take on additional projects such as producing how-to videos that could be disseminated quickly in a catastrophe.

$1 million: We could do previous work plus do a request for proposals (RFP) (or X prize?) to maximally increase preparedness, similar to what FLI did with AI.

$10 million: This would cover previous but bigger RFP.

$100 million (commitment): We would likely do a $10 million RFP to figure out the next year’s highest priority research, development, and planning. This would provide assurance that the high priority preparedness would be completed.


You might think the best thing to do would be to split your donation across the portfolio of EA X risks. However, since alternate foods has received so much less funding than AI and synthetic biology, it would be optimal for your entire donation to go to alternate foods. An analogous argument was made for funding EA movement building versus direct work a while back on the EA forum.


How to help

We are always open to feedback and mentoring.

We would love volunteer help on number of projects, including drafting response plans for particular countries (maybe a hackathon?), making alternate foods and documenting instructions and videos, social media (now and in a catastrophe), tracking down influential people, training for interaction with the mass media, fundraising, etc. A tax-free donation in the US is easy on our website. If you want to get a tax deduction outside the US, I'm pretty sure we can figure something out. For instance, I found with my donor-advised fund that I could get the tax deduction in the US, but then the donor-advised fund could distribute internationally. I am trying to find a host for the Facebook/Gates Foundation Giving Tuesday matching event, as our charity is not listed. If you know an organization that would be willing to host, contact me at david dot denkenberger at gmail.




1 Note that this is assuming that the loss of value in the universe from humans never recovering civilization is similar to AI causing human extinction. Bad AI spreading suffering in the light cone would be worse.

2 Technically this number includes some probability that alternate foods will be invented independently in a catastrophe, but this only counts 10% agricultural shortfalls. So when you count sun-blocking catastrophes, I think this number is a reasonable estimate of our counterfactual impact.

Comments (5)

Comment author: Ben_West  (EA Profile) 21 December 2017 10:54:17PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for writing this! This is a very interesting idea.

Do you have thoughts on "learning" goals for the next year? E.g. is it possible that you could find a certain valuable food source with significantly more or less effort expected? Or could you learn of a non-EA funding source (e.g. government grants) that would make you significantly more impactful? I'm mostly interested in your $10,000 order of magnitude, if that's relevant.

Also: do you think that your research could negatively impact animal welfare in the event that a global catastrophe does not occur? E.g. could you recommend a change to fishing practices which are implemented prior to a catastrophe which increases the number of farmed fish or changes their quality of life?

Comment author: Denkenberger 30 December 2017 01:07:02AM 0 points [-]

Thanks! Yes, it is possible we will find new food sources. Some that I have not yet been able to analyze include bacteria that eat plastic, bacteria that run on electricity, and direct chemical synthesis of food. We are actively pursuing non-EA grants and foundations. Generally we would not be recommending changing the way things are done today very much, because that can get into the billions of dollars of cost. So I doubt we would negatively impact animal welfare if the catastrophe did not occur.

Comment author: Greg_Colbourn 01 December 2017 01:02:21AM 1 point [-]

Can ALLFED get listed on EA Funds (https://app.effectivealtruism.org)? That should enable tax deductible donations from the UK.

Comment author: JacobTref 30 December 2017 11:57:02PM 0 points [-]

This is a useful write-up, thank you for this and your previous posts on alternate foods.

Do you know which US government departments are working on food in catastrophes, if any? DHS? FEMA? USDA (e.g. https://www.usda.gov/topics/disaster)? I assume that in catastrophes government coordination on food is key - the closest parallel that comes to mind is rationing in the UK after WW2. I'd be interested if there's anything public to read about departments' budgets for things like this, or how they're thinking about it.

Comment author: Denkenberger 31 December 2017 02:30:25AM *  0 points [-]

Good question. We have spent some time trying to find the most appropriate parts of the US and UK governments. USDA looks at smaller disasters, as does FEMA/DHS. The Cold War Civil Defense Department turned into FEMA, but now FEMA does not consider conflict scenarios. DOD is a possibility. The UK foreign office put out a report on the ~80% likelihood of 10% global agricultural shortfalls this century. We have found very few people thinking about what to do if there were a 10% or 100% agricultural shortfall.