Question context:
Posit basically our current world (focusing for now on the 1st/2nd world nations), but beset by increasing global failures in the technology-based infrastructure: failures of electronics and vehicles are starting to approach the failing faster-than-we-can-fix-them threshold -- and there’s no known option other than repair/replacement. (Assume that the cause is unknown/unbelieved by virtually everyone: magic is returning -- and not quietly....)

Actual food inventories are low and largely privatized. (IMHO worrisome, since this part isn’t exactly fiction, alas.) Food production and distribution becomes strained to the point of unreliability -- resulting in cascading problems in the commodity markets for foodstuffs. But most people in the 1st and 2nd worlds now live in major metropolitan areas, far from where the food is and highly dependent on markets and infrastructure to get food.

The tech failures go from puzzling to serious over a scale of a couple months, and people are frantic! What do they do? Presumably, the urban/suburban people try to get into food producing careers and areas, more and more desperately. At the same time, the rural folks and powers (family farms, agri-businesses, employees and communities) are frightened by the masses of 'urbans' becoming an unsustainable burden on the 'rurals' and try to resist/send them elsewhere.

Assume that conflicting interests have national governments largely tied in knots, other than suppressing large-scale violence. The people are a chaotic mix of distrusting governments and desperate for any help at all. But local governments (states, provinces or counties) -- especially those rich in food resources -- will likely do things to protect their residents and discourage mass arrivals/squatting from outside.

The actual question is in two parts: (1) a move/tactic the urbans could try to get food/arable land and (2), how the food-producers would react. Please give both if you can.

1. What would the urban folks try to do, to get more access to food and arable land?
Example: Urbans travel to and squat on any unused/under-defended land that appears arable (national forests, nature preserves, utility easements) and try to grow food.

2. What will the food-producers do to resist large numbers of hungry, migrating urbans? Example: States require ID of all those incoming at their borders; deporting those without valid proof of in-state residence or other qualification (e.g. ownership of property in the state or similar.)

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    $\begingroup$ In circumstances like this governments will declare martial law and call in the Army. To quote Mao Zedong; "Political power grows of the barrel of a gun." In the face of ongoing catastrophe governments can soon untangle the knots. It's how societies function. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Jan 1, 2017 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Xandar: For the purposes of this question, there's no EMP (yet), but transistors are 'randomly' refusing to transist, and even pre-transistor cars and trucks are starting to die. If the failures ramped up slowly (compared to an EMP event), what would people do to get (or protect) what food and food-production was still available? $\endgroup$
    – Catalyst
    Jan 1, 2017 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ I suggest you research what the repercussions of an EMP wiping out the power grids would be like. The fact is that most people are going to die. There's quite a bit of literature on the subject. Your failures take place over more time, though, so some of the damage may be mitigated. I'm not sure how much, but there will be many deaths. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2017 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Xandar: I know a bit about EMP, having worked a bit on EMP hardening (rather classified comms) gear for the USAF, some years back. I suspect we're in closer agreement than you realize re EMP or tech failures. IMHO, for societies that have adopted combustion engines and electrical power, losing those means massive die-offs! $\endgroup$
    – Catalyst
    Jan 1, 2017 at 21:25

1 Answer 1


The primary problem is lack of labor

If technological solutions to farming, like combines and harvesters and such, fail, then the foremost problem is that there is a lack of labor. Instead of one giant tractor going out to plant a field or harvest it, you will need a horde of people to go out and manual plant, or harvest with a sickle.

There are plenty of crops for which mechanization does not really exist: think lettuce and strawberries. Those farmers still do rely on manual labor of migrant workers.

This basically suggests the labor problem will solve itself. The farmers can't plant or harvest their fields due to a lack of machinery and/or labor. Millions people are starving, and willing to work for food. Problem solved.

The problems are around the edges

The modern farmer can feed 100 or more, but it's not just as easy as replacing his mechanized labor with starving city migrants. There are other things that go into high modern crop yields. Fertilizers, irrigation equipment, and modern seed varieties are a few. Transporting those things from where they are made to the farms that need them is another. This is where the breakdowns are going to cause pain.

Not everyone needs to go to the farms right away. As long as technology is sort-of working, farmers will need the support of those people making things they need: tractors, fertilizer, electric pumps, seeds, etc. The people who will end up working on the farms are the ones that cannot contribute to this new economy: writers, software engineers, people who contribute to Worldbuilding, etc.

The degradation of crops may not be immediate. If farmers can rig up manually operated pumps instead of electric ones, they an still irrigate as needed by their migrant workers. Some summers in the corn belt might not need any irrigation at all for good yields. But still, the reduction in available fertilizer will reduce yields over time; insufficient irrigation will increase the chance of a harvest failure. Population will be reduced by attrition.

How it plays out

As more and more technology fails, more and more people leave the dying cities to go to the farms. Farmers welcome the influx of starving laborers, desperate to do anything to eat. Their knowledge of farming practices makes them the aristocracy in this new food limited world.

Farm life is hard, and getting harder as more and more modern technology fails. Starvation sets in each winter. Death rates go up, the young, the old, and the sick die at increased rate. But in America and Eastern Europe, at least, population densities are relatively low, and there is lots of room to expand. With lots of labor at hand, and modern organizational practices, modern farmers should be able to increase production by increasing the amount of land under cultivation, and local manufacturies use modern solutions to make limited amounts of fertilizers locally; or they just start raising heirloom cows and pigs and go back to the old 3/4 field systems. Western Europe has less room to expand and starvation may be worse. In East Asia, it will not go well at all.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, it's a gruesome situation, made worse because we have far fewer draft animals in the first/second worlds. This happens suddenly enough that planning and governments fall pretty much flat. The less developed economies (those using draft animals), do better at similar population densities, relative to the carrying capacity of the land. $\endgroup$
    – Catalyst
    Dec 31, 2016 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ I think you are taking an excessively naive view on this. If an EMP wiped out all the power grids in the US, ~90% of the populace would be dead in two years. In your situation the failures happen more slowly, but still, a lot of people are going to die. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2017 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon Well I ain't dying. Are you? The fact that people will do what it takes to not die indicates that fatalities won't be that high while people can do something about it. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 2, 2017 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion so what happens when not everyone can survive? When there is to little food and too many people? People's determination not to die may just ensure the deaths of others. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2017 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ If it's worth anything, the 90% figure comes from an EMP committee commissioned by US congress. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2017 at 2:28

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