Nuclear Famine: 2 Billion People at Risk?

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War’s report on the global impact of nuclear weapons.


In November 2013, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) released the second edition of its report on the global impact of a limited nuclear war on agriculture, food supplies and human nutrition. In the following executive summary, Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of IPPNW, outlines the risks we share as a global community. Through this report, we can broaden our understanding of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and why they must be eliminated at any cost.

Over the last several years, a number of studies have shown that a limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan would cause significant climate disruption worldwide. Two studies published in 2012 examined the impact on agricultural output that would result from this climate disruption. In the U.S., corn production would decline by an average of 10 percent for an entire decade, with the most severe decline, about 20 percent, in year five. There would be a similar decline in soybean production, with the most severe loss, again about 20 percent, in year five.

A second study found a significant decline in Chinese middle season rice production. During the first four years, rice production would decline by an average of 21 percent; over the next six years the decline would average 10 percent.

A third study, completed in the fall of 2013, showed that there would be even larger declines in Chinese winter wheat production. Production would fall 50 percent in the first year, and, averaged over the entire decade after the war, it would be 31 percent below baseline.

The decline in available food would be exacerbated by increases in food prices that would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest. Even if agricultural markets continued to function normally, 215 million people would be malnourished over the course of a decade.

However, markets would not function normally. Significant, sustained agricultural shortfalls over an extended period would almost certainly lead to panic and hoarding on an international scale as food exporting nations suspended exports in order to assure adequate food supplies for their own populations. This turmoil in the agricultural markets would further reduce accessible food.

The 870 million people in the world who are chronically malnourished today have a baseline consumption of 1,750 calories or less per day. Even a 10 percent decline in their food consumption would put this entire group at risk. In addition, the anticipated suspension of exports from grain-growing countries would threaten the food supplies of several hundred million additional people who have adequate nutrition today, but who live in countries that are highly dependent on food imports.

Finally, more than a billion people in China would also face severe food insecurity. The number of people threatened by nuclear-war induced famine would be well over 2 billion.

These studies demonstrate the need for additional research and underscore the urgent need to move with all possible speed to the negotiation of a global agreement to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons and the danger of nuclear war.


(p. 20)