Russian and American leaders have been wary of nuclear war. A limited exchange of nuclear weapons would cause a lot of destruction.

What are the likely effects on global food production during a nuclear winter? Two researchers at Penn State University recently found that small segments of humanity might survive a nuclear apocalypse thanks to wild plants and insects.

A Penn State research project on emergency food resilience is being conducted by Daniel Winstead, a research technologist, and Michael Jacobson, a professor. The study was published in the journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in February and became more relevant as Russia invaded Ukraine.

The lead author says that he had no idea that this would be relevant.

Reducing Sunlight and Temperature

Nuclear war is the most probable and preventable catastrophe, according to the study.

A large-scale nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States would send up to 165 million U.S. tons of soot into the upper atmosphere. The amount of soot is 11 times the weight of the Pyramids of Giza.

The study says that an exchange would reduce the levels of sunlight to less than 40 percent near the equator and less than five percent near the poles. Severe precipitation reductions would occur worldwide. It would take up to 15 years for conditions to fully recover.

Most of North America, Europe and Asia would be covered in frost. In the Amazon basin, the precipitation might reduce by 90 percent after a few years.

A large-scale nuclear war would cause global crop failure for at least four to five years. In the tropics closest to the equator, less extreme temperature changes might provide a chance at agricultural production to feed survivors, both immediately and in the years before the sun would shine again.

Wild, Edible Plants

The study wanted to know what plants could grow after a nuclear war.

Population centers close to forested and tropical regions were determined by researchers. They looked at a list of wild plants and chose 33 that could hold potential in post-nuclear war conditions.

Fruits, leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts, roots, spices, sweets and proteins were separated into seven categories. Abundance and ease to process, density in energy, essential vitamins and minerals, non-perishable in long-term storage without refrigeration, and availability for harvesting most of the year were included in their criteria. The study notes that they chose the 33 based on their tolerances for shade, drought, and cooler temperatures.

Winstead says that the Indigenous peoples incorporated some of the plants into their daily diet. Palm weevils are fat-and-protein-rich grubs that offer the greatest potential for large-scale cultivation. You can grind and roast for use in breads and soups.

The amount of calories in those grubs is immense. You can put that in the corner of a room.

Konjac, a root vegetable that can be used as a famine food, was one of the promising WEPs. The world's fifth-most important staple crop is the cassava root. The oyster mushroom is a good source of vitamins and minerals. The safou is an oily fruit that is also called African plum. The study says that the latter is one of the most cooked greens in Africa and Asia.

WEPs that could be gathered immediately after a nuclear war were identified in a second category. One of the world's largest vegetables that is also known as enset is included.

Winstead says that the plant prevented starvation during the famines of Ethiopia.

He says that boabab trees are useful. You can eat their leaves and roots, they can hold water for a long time, and their fruits are storable.

Winstead has not eaten most of the WEPs himself. He would love to try them.

The Bigger Picture

Winstead hopes to increase awareness of WEPs through this study so we can use them in a way that is good for the planet and good for us.

There are thousands and thousands of plants that people eat. It's more important to protect those areas so we don't lose that diversity.

Winstead says that most humans feed off just 12 crops. He suggests that the loss of traditional knowledge about wild plant foods may be a result of globalization. Women who held community roles as food gatherers and preparers passed on their knowledge.

There is a concern about the environment. Several yam species are also at risk due to deforestation.

He concludes that helping food resilience right now will prepare us for future disasters. Whether it occurs before a mushroom cloud forms on the horizon is anyone's guess.

There is enough land for us to do the right thing. I think there would be a lot if people cooperated and didn't keep things for themselves. It will take a lot of people to make a difference.