So imagine any typical post-apocalyptic world, recently cast into their misfortune. A very large percentage of humanity has been killed, leaving a very large stock of property to be looted. I suspect that food and fresh water are the very first trade goods than anyone would care about. But as time progressed and more and more grocery stores and things are looted of their wheaties, I would think that those who survived that long are able to get their own food and water often enough, so I wonder what kind of non-perishable, irreplaceable goods would become trade commodities, or at least commonly traded.

Some ideas:

  • candy - people have a sweet tooth.
  • peanut butter - Don't need a reason. It's peanut butter.
  • canned goods - Lasts forever and sometimes contains foods that would not easily produced for many decades.
  • spices - perhaps a new luxury item because many spices only grow in certain parts of the world.

As these limited goods would be used up, what would replace them? How might their value increase or decrease over time (e.g. a candy bar used to get you a gallon of water, now it gets you ten).

I have intentionally focused on edible goods. Naturally, people trading water for a candy bar probably intend to eat the candy bar, thereby reducing the remaining supply. My question is about the economics of these kinds of things and what kinds of non-perishable, irreplaceable food items would be most valuable at first and how that would change over the next decade or two after the apocalypse.

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    $\begingroup$ Heinlein wrote an essay during the cold war about surviving WW3 that touches on some of these points. It is worth a read: greyenigma.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/… $\endgroup$
    – Rozwel
    Apr 2, 2015 at 3:38
  • $\begingroup$ As someone who works in that industry, unless the population dropped very quickly, I would count on stores for supplies - the average distribution center carries less than 3 weeks of supply. It's entirely feasible for the "easy" food to be gone before things even start to get bad. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2015 at 17:33

7 Answers 7


Quality alcohol is probably one of the most important commodities you'd find in a post-apocalyptic barter economy. Why?

  1. Without large-scale water filtration systems in place, it's safer than water.
  2. It's difficult but not impossible to manufacture. Specialized equipment for malting, fermenting, distillation, etc. can be hard to come by. These might be even more important tools due to their function as capital to produce a valued good.
  3. Well packaged alcohol can last quite a while in a natural environment (use caves as cellars, etc.) So groups of people can control market supply more effectively (if there's a glut of beer, wait until it dries up to offer yours.)
  4. It works as a sterilizer in a pinch. Important when antibiotics aren't readily available and your autoclave is broken... :)
  5. At the end of the world, EVERYONE is going to want a stiff drink.

Depending on how you're looking at it, labor supply is a vital "good" in a society that needs to revert back to small scale agriculture. Basically, you'd have tribes of people who are either slaves/indentured to a local power, or have banded together as a "temp" service for communal profit - a large extended family hiring out three teenagers for the harvest season for a share of the harvest and some extra trade goods, for example.

Livestock may be even more important than labor itself, combining both a food source and a labor source in one. In all likelyhood, large-scale raising of cattle will require too much food to be practical. Instead, there would be "the family cow/horse/donkey/etc." and shepherds with flocks of goats, which are hardier and can be grazed on more unfriendly terrain. Some interesting details:

Goats can withstand heat stress and can endure prolonged water deprivation. They have additionally great adaptability to adverse climatic and geophysical conditions, where cattle and shee cannot survive. [...] Dairy goat is considered the cow of the poor. The goat eats little, occupies a small area and produces enough milk for the average unitary family, whereas maintaining a cow at home cannot be afforded by the homeowner, hence, the growing popularity of goat as the poor person’s cow.

In more northern climes, domestic sheep will be as common (or more common) than goats, especially for their wool production. Expect to eat a lot of feta cheese.

Depending on how "Mad Max" we're getting, bullets will retain their value if hunting or defense becomes necessary.

Glass tends to be too fragile to depend on when there's no police force keeping vandals and burglars from breaking windows. Plexiglass and other clear plastics become very attractive options for windows.

Honey is a good alternative for sugar that's not very "work intensive" but fulfills the public sweet tooth. Expect dried/baked honey as treats in the long term, with an established beehive being a MAJOR money maker both as a producer and a pollinator.

Salted, brined, and dried Goods like fish, meat, and certain vegetables would replace our canned goods when we run out - they last a good while and can be produced in your home with little special equipment. That being said:

Salt would become incredibly economically important again for these purposes. We currently extract salt in large factories and mines (yes, even your hoity-toity Pink Himalayan salt and Black Hawaiian salts.) When those shut down, you'd be digging by hand (unlikely) or using the age-old method of evaporating it out of the sea water. Setting up large plexiglass evaporators will help distill both salt and water - a double win. This will require a decent bit of land to accomplish at a worthwhile scale, though.

In terms of the economics, we would see broad hoarding at the start with overinflated prices vis a vis supply with large fluctuations. When the market calms down (and populations stabilize,) we'd see a return to rationality with relatively stable rates depending on production - lower for grains and farmed goods, higher for complicated, hard to replace goods like durable metal objects, quality clothes, and refined foods like candy (twinkies?).

Within about a week, most produce will have gone bad. Without the shipping infrastructure, getting fresh fruits out of season will be nearly impossible. In old still life paintings, the presence of fresh fruit, and especially oranges, was a distinct sign of wealth. There is ancient literature that describes people's wealth by stating that they had winter fruits in the summer and summer fruits in the winter. Locally produced fruits will be cheap at the point of production but very valuable as trade goods in a caravan outside of normal growing ranges and seasons. Expect more dried fruits for preservation, especially for berries, cherries, and the like. Melons don't really preserve though (and require lots of water), so serving watermelon, canteloupe, honeydew, etc. will be a strong display of wealth. Things like peanuts will be valued for their high nutrient content and long storage life (as will all legumes in general), so they will be valuable, but probably reserved for special or extreme occasions (either a celebration or a food shortage) which will keep their price in check - people won't consume them as quickly as other, more perishable produce.

In the long run, we'd probably start substituting a more readily available good for the latter category - like the aforementioned honey for candy, wooden items for metal, rough woven cloth for manufactured cotton, etc. Eventually, it will be so commonplace that using a metal spoon will seem strange to the average individual. Only "collectors" will be interested in these special items, and will probably be willing to pay a premium for people able to find "vintage" relics of the "earth that was."

PS: dried grains wouldn't get "used up" - you always preserve enough of your harvest for AT LEAST one year of sowing, preferably two (in case one crop fails.)

Economic Timeline:

Week 1: panic. massive looting, little real economic activity. Formation of raiding/looting groups.

Week 2: most unprocessed food starts to spoil. Panic driven trading and inflation. Groups will start to merge/compete/disband/fight. Some will probably start to engage in long term planning, such as creating mutual defense pacts and farming/trading collectives.

Month 2: people start to settle down from panic and focus on short term survival. Durable goods, seeds dominate trading.

Months 3-6: depending on the season, people focus on purchasing livestock for animal labor and interim food supplies while crops grow. Travelling labor collectives and small towns form.

Month 12: People coming to grips with a year of post apocalyptic living. Longer term planning starts to come into effect. People focus on making tools. Metalworking repair skills will become very valuable to keep equiment functioning. New metal will be harder to come by. People began to craft rough metal and wooden tools as replacements. Medical supplies become scarce, people start dying from basic bacterial infections. People start substituting beer for suspect water. Evaporators set up to provide for fresh water and tradeable salt.

Years 2-3: Expect to see the first batches of distilled alcohol, low percentages, not well aged. Also expect to see methanol poisoning. Possible establishment of some sort of currency - either grain, peanuts, or workable metals.

Years 4-10: Food prices stabilize locally based upon available producers and inter-regional trade. Non-seasonal fruit recognized as a status symbol. Very few pre-apocalyptic durable consumables remain. People shift consumption to renewable goods. Assuming that they aren't burnt for warmth, books are valuable sources of knowledge and entertainment. Many modern books will decay due to exposure (your paperback is made of VERY cheap paper).

Second decade: Children of the apocalypse come of age. Raised without cultural trappings, they will find plasticware and metal utensils strange. Wealthy older people become collectors willing to pay money for rare items.

Third decade: The start of larger governments, either warlords or something resembling the Senate of old. Stability means people start to recreate old knowledge of medicine, science, and technology, trying to preserve what they remember before it becomes irretrievably lost once the next generation takes over.

  • $\begingroup$ Definitely the best answer so far. I had forgotten how important salt was in ancient times. Interesting thought about collectors. Perhaps I need to edit my question. I'm more interested in those goods like candy and peanut butter that would not be available again for many decades, but they last for a long time on the shelf. As a beekeeper, honey is actually quite easy to farm and you don't need modern tools to build a hive. The hard part is finding and getting your first hive from the wild. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 2, 2015 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ @fredsbend Really? You're in apiarist? Cool. Why do you think peanut butter is hard to come by? Peanuts are a hardy and valuable crop. Roasting and grinding them is pretty easy. Candy I think I addressed well with the honey. Chocolates separate in temperature extremes, the white stuff is the cacao butter leeching out of the chocolate. When that happens, the remaining chocolate gets dry and crumbly. Not worth eating. If there's something I missed let me know. $\endgroup$ Apr 2, 2015 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ Peanuts really only grow well in the Southern USA and similar climates. People in Seattle or London, for example, will likely not see peanut butter very often once the supply runs short. I do see honey and honeycomb replacing candy pretty easily. I've made an edit to the question, but your answer is pretty good. I would like to see a bit more analysis on the economic developments over the first two decades. Essentially, a timeline would be awesome. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 2, 2015 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ I keep scrolling up in an attempt to upvote, but then find I've already updated. Fantastic answer, though I would like to point out that knowledgeable people (doctors/EMTs and engineers being the first to come to mind) will become a commodity. Having someone who can set a fractured bone or design a better plow is invaluable when every hand is needed to survive, and efficiency is key. $\endgroup$
    – anon
    Apr 2, 2015 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @QPaysTaxes thanks! but one thing to keep in mind - most modern doctors are trained on modern tools. a huge amount of knowledge becomes inoperable when modern technology stops being part of the medical equation. An EMT (or even a boyscout well trained in first-aid) will treat a wound and set bones just as well as a doctor in our apocolyptia. $\endgroup$ Apr 2, 2015 at 17:57

I agree with Isaac's answer but feel that he left off a few points, besides the obvious toiletry items of condoms, tampons, and toilet paper being valuable trade goods in the first months and years, as follows:

Spices are completely the thing that is going to be valuable that everyone is probably going to overlook, until they don't realize how valuable they are. The spice trade is still today a world spanning global market and was something that in the past made cities and empires rich. There are today still spices that are worth more than their weight in precious metal; not that those need to be focused on in an end of the world setting where the global supply chain has collapsed. The interesting thing about spices is that having a good supply that lasts for some time actually isn't that heavy, but it makes a huge difference in eating.

Seeds, especially seeds that lead to food, and then seeds that lead to spices are going to be sky high valuable, for a while. Some spices you just have to have a hoard of, others though can be grown if you have the know how and the seeds to do so, and the stability and have survived to the point that you can expend the energy on growing spices. It is a risky move keeping alive gardens and possibly cobbled together greenhouses of things that primarily provide flavorings over substance, but there could be a pay off.

Candy would certainly gain value as time went on; all that processed sugar and memories of a better time and life, for a while sure it would a survival item but then any candy left would be much more than that.

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    $\begingroup$ you probably want to look into the Prepper movement if you are writing a story on the subject. $\endgroup$
    – John_H
    Apr 2, 2015 at 17:06

Tools, tools, tools.

The problem with trading food is that it's perishable, and also there isn't much point in trading it because if you are scavenging everyone has pretty much an equal chance of turning this up. There is thus no comparative advantage to motivate trade. Are you really going to go a great distance and risk interacting with people to swap your peanut butter for candy? Is this really going to be a thing you do over and over again? If I have an extra can of beans, why should I let you have it, when I can just keep it and feed myself with it some day? What sort of mutually beneficial arrangement can we possibly make?

So you really want tradable things that any one person can easily be in surplus of, where one person or location might turn up more than another location, that cannot be easily substituted for other items, and whose supply is very limited.

I think if you look back to early civilisation, you'll see that the key trade product is tools.

Even something like a screwdriver would be huge. A saw to cut down trees with? Can openers? Wires? Nails? Pencils? Ploughs? Spades? All of this stuff are treasure troves any person can turn up lots of, that are highly useful, that another person might not find any of, and that can not be replaced until humanity returns to the industrial age.

  • $\begingroup$ I tend to agree that tools would be far more valuable than candy bars or peanut butter, but I specifically asked for answers to focus on the economics of food trade. A candy bar for a gallon of water sounds like a likely trade, for example. Candy is not a needed food item, but people might be willing to trade it for a food item they do need. They are also irreplaceable. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 2, 2015 at 0:32
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah but why would the guy with the gallon of water make the trade, when very likely he will soon be very thirsty and need the water? I don't think the mutually beneficial trade exists - one party or another will have to be stupid. $\endgroup$
    – Fhnuzoag
    Apr 2, 2015 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ You don't have to be stupid to want a candy bar. In this example, you just might have a surplus of something that the other person wants at the moment. Further, it might even be an investment because you know a guy who will trade it for something else that you do need. I can think of a million reasons why a person would trade for candy, and none of them imply he's stupid. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 2, 2015 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know whether tools will be all that valuable, at least in the first couple of years. If enough of humanity has been wiped out, there should be lots of these lying around uselessly for anyone to scavenge who has the time and inclination. Really good quality undamaged tools will probably start increasing in value once the ones just lying around start to become damaged - maybe 10 years after? $\endgroup$
    – Kristy
    Apr 2, 2015 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ Whereas food items are not only (often) perishable, but even the ones that are good for a few years,like candy bars, are likely to be consumed by the explosion of mice and rodents that will occur. $\endgroup$
    – Kristy
    Apr 2, 2015 at 23:12

Focusing solely on the consumable end of the post-apocolyptic economy, a trader would want to offer those food items that have legendary healing or disease prevention attributes.

Most people know that citris fruits help to prevent scurvy. They probably don't know what scurvy is, but they know that they need oranges to avoid it.

An Apple a day is a great sales pitch. Spinach makes you strong while canned-oysters and chocolate improve your love life.

The lore and mystic of these consumables might enhance their trade value, giving the trader a higher weight-to-trading-value ratio than other room-temperature consumables.


Variation on the "tools" theme: tools and techniques for preserving food.

You may be able to raise pigs, but if I have a smoke house and salt for curing meat, then you have a reason to deal with me (it may be much easier to get customers for a side of bacon than a live pig, depending on where you are and what your customer wants to do).

Canning, smoking, curing, preserving, making jams and jellies will all be valuable skills and the equipment needed to do these things will also have a great deal of value. For people who are not living the neolithic hunter gatherer existence, having food items which are somewhat portable and long lasting will also be valuable, and worth giving a small "cut" of the raw or fresh foodstuffs to the food processors in exchange for having the rest of the food turned into high value added products.

As an added advantage, a food processor will have some value to the "Lord Humongus" in a Mad Max scenario. You don't want to kill the only guy who makes bacon, and he might not be able to move around very effectively ("Hey, Humongus. If I have to leave here I won't be able to smoke the bacon with this special hickory wood. You wouldn't want your followers to start having to eat sub standard bacon, would you?"). Less likely to be killed or pillaged, which is always a consideration after the Apocalypse.


I loved Isaacs answer, I just wanted to add one thing:

Cow's milk.

Dairy farming has been part of our history for thousands of years and dairy products are an important part of our diet. There is also a bit of an emotional/cultural attachment to milk. We give it to our children when they are young to help them grow big and strong. I have fond memories of being a child and sitting down with a big glass of cold milk and a cookie. My dad tells story's about drinking the milk fresh from the cow, with the cream on top.

Depending on how much of the human population has died, there is a good chance all, or most, of the dairy cows would be dead within about a week. They just can't survive without human assistance. Even if some of the stock is saved, distribution and supply will be cut off for a really long time.

So long life milk will be huge currency during the first few years, and anyone who manages to get into dairy farming will do very well from themselves.

I also think Spam and Chicken in a can will be super valuable. Salty long lasting protein, enough said.

  • $\begingroup$ By "long life milk" I assume you mean dry milk and irradiated milk. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 2, 2015 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking UHT milk (if that is irradiated). But I did a bit more research and it seems it may only be good for at most a year. Shame! $\endgroup$
    – Kristy
    Apr 2, 2015 at 22:58
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I thought UHT was irradiated in some way, I don't really know. Either way, I believe you are on to something with at least dried milk and probably condensed, canned milk. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Apr 2, 2015 at 22:59
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    $\begingroup$ Now that you mention it, my sister was in the army and she said that the little tubes of sweetened condensed milk provided in the rat pack were hot commodities. $\endgroup$
    – Kristy
    Apr 2, 2015 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ Long Life Milk is pronounced cheese $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Apr 3, 2015 at 22:22

Since the OQ specified trade goods, I think that implies a recovery from absolute chaos, such that people are trading/bartering instead of literally cannibalizing. In this case, I assert that:

  • Coffee,
  • Cocoa,
  • Tea

Will be highly desirable, valuable trade goods.

Just imagine waving a cup of coffee near a caffeine-deprived former Starbucks aficionado in a trading situation; ka-ching!

Edible oils (soy, canola, peanut) are another possibility, they're calorie dense, have long shelf lives -- and can be burned for light (if no electricity.)

Points for those who have mentioned seeds, spices and tools (though the tools themselves aren't exactly food.)


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