Scaling of greenhouse crop production in low sunlight scenarios

Kyle A. Alvarado*, Aron Mill, Joshua M. Pearce, Alexander Vocaet, David Denkenberger

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Purpose: During a global catastrophe such as a nuclear winter, in which sunlight and temperatures are reduced across every latitude, to maintain global agricultural output it is necessary to grow some crops under structures. This study designs a method for scaling up crop production in low-tech greenhouses to contribute to global food sustainability during global catastrophic conditions. Constructing low-tech greenhouses would obviate growing crops using more expensive and energy intensive artificial light. Methods: A nuclear winter climate model is used to determine conditions for which greenhouses would need to compensate. The greenhouse structures are designed to utilize global markets of timber, polymer film, construction aggregates, and steel nails. Results: The limiting market that determines the growth rate of the greenhouses is the rate at which polymer film and sheet are currently extruded. Conditions under low-tech greenhouses in the tropics would feasibly accommodate the production of nearly all crops. Some supplemental lighting would be required for long day crops. Conclusions: The analysis shows that the added cost of low-tech greenhouses is about two orders of magnitude lower than the added cost of artificial light growth. The retail cost of food from these low-tech greenhouses will be ~2.30 USD/kg dry food higher than current costs; for instance, a 160% retail cost increase for rice. According to the proposed scaling method, the greenhouses will provide 36% of food requirements for everyone by the end of the first year, and feed everyone after 30 months.

Original languageEnglish
Article number136012
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2020
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Alternative foods
  • Existential risk
  • Global catastrophic risk
  • Greenhouses
  • Low sunlight
  • Nuclear winter

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