Getting Food After a Nuclear War

by Duncan Long

No matter how much freeze-dried food or grain you may have stored away in your survival stores, if a nuclear war comes to pass, sooner or later your food will run out. Then what will you do for food?

If you're in an area with few survivors, traveling to your local grocery stores MIGHT be of help. Food in sealed containers would be safe to eat if you were careful to wipe off any fallout dust on the container before opening it. Radiation doesn't make food dangerous and only slightly alters it so that it loses little of its food value.

But chances are good that any store will be stripped during a pre-war panic. Even if it were full at the time of the attack, time is against you. Foods have a finite life during which their nutritional content remains high. Once this time is exceeded, the nutritional value of the food gradually drops off. Food will remain eatable for some time but it will not necessarily supply all your nutritional needs.

Nutritional shelf lives of stored foods are short. Most canned food (whether in cans or jars), has a life of only 6 months (though the food will be eatable for longer). Canned meats and non-citrus fruits last a bit longer; they have some food value for up to a year. Evaporated milk has a nutritional life of 6 months; bouillon, instant cream, nuts, cereals, and hydrogenated (or anti- oxidant treated) fats/vegetable oil all have nutritional shelf lives of a year. About the only things worth eating after a year are coffee, tea, cocoa, candy (that isn't nearly 100% sugar), or spices like sugar, salt, pepper, etc. So even IF you have a grocery store to use for supplies, the nutritional value of the food will be nearly nil after a year.

Foraging? Maybe. But if you're in an area where the plants are producing enough food to support you, chances are good that there'll be a large human population as well. If you have to compete with others for wild food sources, chances are there won't be enough to support you. Foraging also takes a lot of energy for the caloric return to carry out; you burn up nearly as much energy as you gain. So don't plan on doing more than supplementing your larder through foraging unless you're living in a very remote area with a lot of food just waiting for you to pick it off the plants.

Hunting? Again, much the same argument can be made against it as is with foraging. If the animals survive, a large population of humans will probably be competing with you for the food. Hunting could supply supplemental meat for your diet but probably won't be a main source unless you're really out in the wilds.

So most of us who are planning on surviving a nuclear war for more than a few years need to be able to raise our food or have a skill (like dentistry, medical work, etc.) which can be bartered for food.

Is gardening or farming possible in a radioactive fallout contaminated environment? Yes.

Fallout from a nuclear weapon is different from that of commercial radioactive waste. While the waste from a nuclear reactor may last for thousands or even tens of thousands of years, radiation from a nuclear weapon decays very quickly to a safe level. (The flip side of this is that fallout is initially more dangerous than radioactive waste since the levels of radiation it gives off are higher.) Even in the shadow of a very dirty ground blast, the levels of radiation will sink to safe levels in a relatively short time. This means that you could be gardening in a very contaminated area within a year's time if you had to. Though long-term dangers from such activities may remain to show up in 20 or 30 years in such an area, if the choice is between starving in a few months or MAYBE having a radiation-related disease like leukemia or cancer 30 years down the road, it shouldn't be too hard to decide.

Too, fallout is like sand or dust. It isn't a liquid that runs into the earth. With care, even in areas of maximum fallout, the top soil--along with the fallout--could be removed and the land used for gardening. If you had access to heavy earth-moving equipment, even full-scale farming could be carried out after removing several inches of top soil.

If removing the soil is not possible, it's also possible to plow fallout under so that it's below ground. This allows plants to obtain nutrient from the soil while the earth acts as density shielding to lower the radiation to levels that will not harm either the plants or the person growing them. While this isn't as ideal as actually removing the contaminated soil, it is an easier alternative. The produce produced on such land will not be quite as safe to eat from a long-term health point of view but, again, it beats starving.

More dangerous to plants than radiation will be the ultraviolet radiation created by damage to the ozone by nuclear weapons. This damage, like fallout, is fairly short-lived, however. The ozone layer will renew itself so that, by a year after the worst of a nuclear war is over, a less harsh environment for growing plants will again be available. Since it now appears that the problems of a nuclear winter have been exaggerated and, even if they should occur, will be over after the first year as well, things would be fairly decent for gardening within a year's time. (Fallout, ozone damage, and nuclear winter are three good reasons to have stores of food to get through that first year.)

If it were necessary to grow plants in the open during the first year, some plants are more resistant than others to ultraviolet radiation. The best are wheat, soybeans, rye, barley, alfalfa, and corn (all of which are excellent sources of nutrients). Though high levels of ultraviolet light may stunt these plants' growth somewhat, they'd still produce food.

Best bet would be a greenhouse created with sheets of plastic or the like. The plastic would cut down on ultraviolet light and the enclosed area would help you to control pests and maintain a warm temperature if that should be a problem. Provided you've had the foresight to purchase non-hybrid seeds, you could produce crops for your family for years to come in such an environment. (Hybrid seed would be great the first year, but the seeds you get from the hybrid plants may not grow to create a second crop.)

Seeds. Some good sources of seeds are: Cross Seed Company, RR #1, Bunker Hill, KS 67626; M & M Enterprises, Box 64, Island Lake, IL 69942; Seeds of Survival, 228 W. North St., Whitewater, WI 53190; and Vegetable Seed, Box 192, Madison, GA 30650. Check the stores in your area as well since they'll have a selection of seeds tailored to grow well in your area (again, avoid hybrids.)

Despite tales of scientists growing wheat from seeds encased with Egyptian mummies, seeds have a finite shelf life in the real world. Each additional year that seed is stored, a higher percentage of it loses its ability to germinate. Therefore, seed should be replaced every year if at all possible. Actually, this is good news; it forces you to practice planting and growing the seeds you've been storing.

If you grow plants in a contaminated environment or forage for plants to eat in areas of fallout, you can process them so that they are safe. Again, remember that fallout is like dust, not a liquid that can penetrate material. If you carefully peel and clean the plants, most of the fallout will be removed with the outer layers of plant material so that you can eat them without fear of ingesting radioactive materials. Fruits or vegetables with smooth skins (like tomatoes or green peppers) can be cleaned by washing (though peeling is probably safer). Plants whose eatable parts come from the ground can be more thoroughly cleansed if you first remove the top layer of soil around their base (which may have some fallout dust in it) before digging up the plant. Eatable tubers and roots should be very thoroughly washed.

A vegetarian diet with everything your body needs to stay healthy is not too easy to maintain in the best of times. In a post-nuclear war environment, it would be nearly impossible. Meat will be all but essential for survival. (Ideally, you'll have a diet mix of somewhere around 15% protein, 52% carbohydrates, and 33% fat.)

How do you get the meat processed (whether you're hunting, discover "wild" domestic animals, or are raising farm animals) so that it is safe to eat?

First, you need to study the way the animal is behaving. Does it look healthy or sick?

If animals have ingested fallout (on grass or other food sources) but have NOT become sick from radiation exposure, they're safe to eat if you follow a few precautions. (Such animals will also probably remain healthy enough to live as long as non-exposed animals so that they can be used for breeding stock; don't kill what you don't need.)

When radioactive contamination is ingested by animals, it is stored in certain locations in their bodies. The habit for post-nuclear war survivors to learn is that of avoiding eating parts of the animal that will be collecting the radioactive materials. If you avoid the parts with high concentrations of contamination, you will be able to remain healthy while still being able to take advantage of the available meat.

Parts to avoid: thyroid glands, kidneys, liver, and meat next to the bones as well as the marrow in the bones. Avoid eating these and eat only muscle meat, you'll be in good shape. Another important precaution is to thoroughly cook the meat so that ALL bacteria are killed in the meat; since radiation lowers resistance to disease, the animal may have higher than normal concentrations of bacteria in it and you will be less able to fight such bacteria off. AVOID EATING RED MEAT; always cook it thoroughly.

Remember that the waste parts of the carcass and parts you shouldn't eat are probably contaminated. Bury the parts in an area where they can not contaminate your water or crops.

If an animal is sick, don't kill it. Though the meat may not contaminated with radiation, the animal is sick because of some sort of disease-causing virus or bacteria (radiation causes a lowered resistance to disease, remem- ber). Meat from these animals can cause food poisoning since cooking the meat will only kill bacteria or viruses in the meat but won't rid it of the toxins the micro-organisms have produced. The meat will be poisoned and no amount of cooking will rid it of the poison.

You may be able to nurse the animal back to health, too. If so, you could eat it later or use it for breeding stock. If the animal dies, dispose of the carcass carefully since it will be contaminated and dangerous to your health.

If the sick animal is in a herd or flock, immediately separate it from the others so that the disease can't spread (lowered resistance again). Keep a herd's area extra clean so that diseases can't get started, too.

Food will be hard to come by following a nuclear war. But radioactive fallout doesn't penetrate or contaminate as much as many people think. Provided you have a little know-how and the foresight to plant some fruit trees, save some seed, or take other survival precautions, you and your family can produce food and survive long after a nuclear war has come to an end.