Physicians Warn of "Nuclear Famine" from Regional Nuclear War

Posted October 11, 2007

A limited, regional nuclear war, such as an exchange between India and Pakistan, would cause world wide climate disruption and lead to global famine according to a US physician who presented his findings at a joint medical conference on nuclear war organized by IPPNW and the Royal Society of Medicine's Catastrophes and Conflict Forum. Ira Helfand presented "An Assessment of the Extent of Projected Global Famine Resulting from Limited, Regional Nuclear War" at the conference - Nuclear Weapons: The Final Pandemic - Preventing Proliferation and Achieving Abolition, in London on October 5, 2007.

Dr. Helfand cited research by Professors Alan Robock and Owen B. Toon demonstrating that debris ejected into the atmosphere from the nuclear explosions and subsequent fires would cause sudden global cooling and decreased precipitation for up to 10 years. Shorter growing seasons with significantly lower production would result in many grain producing areas. Similar damage was done by the explosion of the Indonesia volcano Tambora, which led to "the year without a summer" in the US and elsewhere in 1816.
Warning that "a total global death toll in the range of one billion from starvation alone," could be the result of a nuclear war involving only about 100 weapons - approximately the number possessed by India and Pakistan together - Dr. Helfand explained that there are already 800 million people in the world whose daily caloric intake falls below minimum requirements. "A small decline in available food would put this entire group at risk. A sudden decline in agricultural production could trigger massive famine. There is a very high likelihood that starvation on this scale would lead to major epidemics of infectious diseases."

"We are ill prepared to deal with a major fall in world food supply," Dr. Helfand explained. "Global grain stocks stand at 49 days, lower than at any point in the past five decades. These stocks would not provide any significant reserve in the event of a sharp decline in production."

"In addition, we would probably see hoarding on a global scale. In the event of a regional nuclear war, the grain exporting states would be faced with major crop losses and the prospects of bad harvests for the next several years. It is probably that they would refuse to export whatever grain surplus they might have."

Ira Helfand is Regional Vice President for the North America Region of IPPNW and an emergency room doctor in Western, MA.

Close window