Even a smaller scale nuclear war between Pakistan and India would devastate food supplies, reduce global production by 7% in five years and kill up to 2.5 billion people. Food insecurity in these cases would be deadlier than nuclear explosions, the study predicts.
“The data tells us one thing: we must prevent nuclear war from happening,” climate scientist Alan Robock, co-author of the study, said in a statement.
Researchers looked at how wind patterns could spread smoke and fire from nuclear attacks and cloudy skies over major food exporters such as the United States and China. Lack of sunlight would lead to crop collapse and could lead to a 90% drop in animal, fish and crop yields worldwide within four years of a conflict between the major nuclear powers.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the intensification of Chinese military exercises near Taiwan have rekindled fears of a nuclear conflict. After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his nuclear forces “ready for combat”, stoking fears of a possible nuclear conflict with the West 30 years after the end of the Cold War. (Russian officials then tried to soften Putin’s warning.)
China has conducted numerous drills around Taiwan following recent trips by US lawmakers to the island, which Beijing claims as its territory. The instability in the Taiwan Strait comes as Western experts warn that Beijing is accelerating the buildup of its nuclear arsenal.
A nuclear war would aggravate existing threats to food security. Climate change, the war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic have already severely disrupted global food production. According to the World Food Programme, a record 345 million people worldwide face food insecurity, an increase of nearly 200 million from pre-pandemic levels.
Nuclear threat higher today than during Cold War, UK official warns
In response, countries like India and Malaysia have restricted their wheat and chicken exports. Fear of a global conflict – regardless of whether nuclear weapons might be involved – and the resulting food insecurity could lead countries to further limit exports or hoard food supplies.
“The psychological impact may be greater than the actual damage,” said William Chen, professor of food science at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and director of a government-affiliated food safety program.
To prepare for greater global instability, he added, countries must move away from traditional agriculture and diversify their food sources. Mushroom cultivation, indoor rearing and the production of insect protein or food from microalgae could be alternatives.
“These don’t take up as much space,” Chen said. “They can be grown in your kitchen, in an underground space, and are less dependent on an environment exposed to nuclear war.”