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Even a limited regional nuclear conflict can hit global food security: Study

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Climate scientists studying potential climatic impacts of nuclear war on global food production have found that even a limited nuclear war can trigger an unprecedented planet-wide food shortage and probable starvation lasting more than a decade.

Citing the example of ‘ traditional’ enemies India and Pakistan, both with nuclear capabilities, an international team of researchers said a nuclear war wherein just 1 per cent of global nuclear stockpile is used is enough to alter weather conditions for a decade or more, crippling global food production during the period. The study appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday.

Regional conflict

Speculations about a ‘nuclear winter’ — a years-long planetary freeze brought on by airborne soot generated by nuclear bombs — are often based on back-of-the-envelope calculations involving a full-blown war between Russia and the US, which together account for 95 per cent of the global nuclear arsenal.

But, scientists led by Jonas Jägermeyr, a post-doctoral scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said even a less gargantuan nuclear war, say involving countries like India and Pakistan, can have untold impact on global food production. India and Pakistan are believed to have 150 nuclear warheads each, which are enough to set off 50 Hiroshima-size bombs.

In addition to direct death and destruction, firestorms following the bombings would launch some 5 million tonnes of soot toward the stratosphere, said the scientists, who used the latest global climate models to calculate the impact. Once it’s dispersed in the stratosphere, the soot would spread globally and remain airborne, absorbing sunlight and lowering global mean temperatures by about 1.8o C for at least five years, they said.

This would in turn cause the production of the world’s four main cereal crops — maize, wheat, soyabean and rice — to plummet an average 11 per cent over that period, with tapering effects lasting another 5-10 years, the scientists projected.

“Even this regional, limited war would have devastating indirect implications worldwide. It would exceed the largest famine in documented history” said Jägermeyr. Apart from Jägermeyr, many researchers from institutes and universities from Austria, France, Germany and the US participated in the study.

Drop in food supply

According to them, crops would be hardest hit in the northerly breadbasket regions of Canada, China, Europe, Russia and the US. But paradoxically, southerly regions would face much more hunger, as many developed nations in the north produce huge surpluses, which are largely exported to nations in the Global South.

If these surpluses were to dry up, the effects would ripple out through the global trade system. As per their estimates, some 70 largely poor countries with a cumulative population of 1.3 billion people would then see food supplies drop more than 20 per cent.

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