An image of one of the first nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll at the start of the Cold War (Creative Commons)

Nuclear war predicted to cause worldwide starvation

Image credit: Creative Commons

The use of nuclear weapons in any military conflict − including the invasion of Ukraine − would lead to “catastrophic” disruptions in food supplies, according to a Rutgers University-led study.

Two-thirds of the world's population would starve to death in the event of a full-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia, according to a new American study.

Food insecurity would be much deadlier than any nuclear blasts, researchers from Rutgers University concluded in their study, published in the journal Nature Food. The sun-blocking soot and ash resulting from the blasts would wilt crops around the world and devastate global food supplies, with "catastrophic" consequences, according to the researchers.  

Although the research was framed with the threat of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, any military conflict that leverages nuclear weapons would be expected to cause a similar impact.

The researchers considered six scenarios involving nuclear arsenals of different sizes, five based on smaller conflicts between India and Pakistan, and one based on a war between the US and Russia. The conclusions showed that even a confrontation between India and Pakistan would slash global food production by 7 per cent within 5 years, resulting in the death of 2.5 billion people. 

“The data tell us one thing: We must prevent a nuclear war from ever happening,” climate scientist Alan Robock, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

The team used state-of-the-art climate, crop and fishery models, to calculate how the availability of food supplies could change globally under various nuclear war scenarios, taking into account how wind patterns could spread smoke and fire from nuclear attacks above major food exporters such as the United States and China.

The study assumed there would be some repurposing of biofuel crops for human consumption, and people would cut back on or eliminate food waste. It also assumed that international trade would stop as countries chose to feed people within their own borders rather than exporting food.

In such eventuality, the research found that the climate perturbations resulting from a nuclear conflict could "not be offset" by livestock and aquatic food. Moreover, the lack of sunlight would collapse harvests and could lead to a 90 per cent drop in animal, fishing and crop yields worldwide within four years of a conflict between major nuclear powers.

A war between the United States, its allies and Russia — who possess more than 90 per cent of the global nuclear arsenal — could produce more than 150 Tg of soot and a "nuclear winter", that would kill 5 billion people, the study concluded. 

The enormous decline in crop yields would cause 75 per cent of the world's population to starve to death within two years.

The scientists' warning comes just weeks after the UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres' statement that "humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation", as well as the 2011 US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir reaffirmation of the 1985 statement by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought".

Although the study focused just on how many calories were being produced globally, the nuclear war would also have an even greater impact on climate change, according to Lili Zia, an assistant research professor at Rutgers.

"The ozone layer would be destroyed by the heating of the stratosphere, producing more ultraviolet radiation at the surface, and we need to understand that impact on food supplies," she said.

The impact of any nuclear conflict was shown to have terrible consequences for most of the world's population. However, in the scenario analysed by the researchers, there was one country whose caloric production would either increase or face only small reductions in the case of a full-scale nuclear war: Australia.

In contrast to northern hemisphere nations, the research revealed that Australia would be able to rely on wheat for food should it become isolated from trade. Crucially, wheat would grow relatively well in the cooler climate induced by atmospheric soot, allowing the nation to avoid starvation even in severe war scenarios. 

“The first time I showed my son the map, the first reaction he had is ‘let’s move to Australia,’” Xia said.

In contrast, the nations most affected by global hunger would be those at mid to high latitudes, the study concluded, as these would cool more dramatically after a nuclear war than tropical regions would. For example, India would be much more adequate for food production in the new climate than European countries such as the United Kingdom. 

Although nuclear war might seem less of a threat than it did during the Cold War, Russia’s test of nuclear-capable missiles during the invasion of Ukraine and recent Chinese military drills near Taiwan have renewed fears of nuclear conflict. Currently, there are still nine countries with more than 12,000 nuclear warheads among them.

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