Science, Medicine and Technology

Nuclear Famine: Radiation Exposure & Effects on Agriculture

A nuclear war using less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear artilleries, could result in global famine — Dr. Ira Helfand, IPPNW Co-President

Nuclear Famine


Musa Sattar, UK

Since Russia’s invasion, an unrelenting wave of deadly shootings have hit cities across Ukraine. If the conflict escalates beyond Ukraine’s borders involving NATO, it would result in a major war between nuclear-armed forces with potential use of ‘combat-ready’ nuclear weapons. The aftermath of such a scenario would be horrific and to a scale that humankind could not envisage.

Amidst this growing conflict, it is important to consider the ramifications of nuclear war.

A Lethal Trap: Pushed into a Global Famine

Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) cautioned that even a very ‘limited’ nuclear war, involving less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear weapons, would cause catastrophic global climate disruption. It would cause a worldwide famine, putting up to 2 billion people at risk of experiencing mass starvation.

According to Executive Director for the UN World Food Programme David Beasley, ‘As the war heats up, dozens of distant countries are set to feel the burn.’.

In a recent statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres at a meeting of the UN Security Council said, ‘Russia and Ukraine represent more than half of the world’s supply of sunflower oil and about 30 percent of the world’s wheat. … Food, fuel, and fertilizer prices are skyrocketing.  Supply chains are being disrupted.’

From the studies, one thing is clear in a likely event of a nuclear war, the entire global economic infrastructure would be destroyed — the electric grid, Internet, food distribution system, transportation network, and the public health system. And in the aftermath, the population would succumb to starvation, radiation sickness, exposure, and epidemic disease.

World After the Explosion: Far-reaching Consequences

Speaking about the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war on the land and crops, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), warned:

‘So first you have to see what will be left in the extreme scenario of a nuclear conflict if any vegetation or animal life even survives. A new life would have to be started as such because in the aftermath of nuclear warfare, the effects of the radiation will have far-reaching consequences. Whether above ground or underground, the radiation will penetrate, and normally where humans die, there vegetation will also die.’

He further stated:

‘Scientists have said that for several years the radiation can directly impact the soil above ground. However, as radioactive elements are absorbed by the soil, even the soil underground may become unusable. Some experts say that after a number of years it may become possible to grow crops once again. The soil would have to be removed to a few feet underground and then that soil may be able to be utilised to grow vegetation. However, at that point, whether seeds are even available to grow has to be seen.’

The dangers facing the world are extremely alarming. We are no longer in peacetime and the shadows of multiple mushroom clouds are looming once again over our planet. So, what are the survivable chances from a global catastrophe caused by a full-scale nuclear exchange?

Previous articles have discussed various consequences of nuclear war, however, this article will specifically review the scientific studies about the effects of nuclear radiation on agriculture, crops, and soil.

When Radiation Lingers: A World Upended, a Future Unclear

Researchers have studied the impact of radiation due to previous, albeit limited, nuclear conflicts and accidents. Research shows that there would be famine in most of the world due to climate disruption (in land and oceans) from nuclear war.

Professor Timothy A. Mousseau from the University of South Carolina and Anders Pape Møller Senior Research scientist from Université Paris-Saclay conducted studies on radiation exposure in plants from Chernobyl, Fukushima, and other regions of the world with high ambient radiation levels. Their findings suggest that plant mutation rates and other measures of genetic damage are considerably elevated, pollen and seed viability are reduced, plant growth rates are slowed, and the frequency of developmental abnormalities is increased within plants exposed to high ionizing radiations.

First, a large-scale study of the effects of a suppressed pollinator community on ecosystem functioning published in a journal of Oecologia showed that there were considerably fewer pollinating insects in areas with high levels of radiation. Fruit trees and bushes that are all pollinated by insects produced fewer fruit in highly radioactively contaminated areas.

J ̈agermeyr et al. published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on regional nuclear conflict and suggested that radiation could disrupt food production and trade worldwide for about a decade. Researchers estimate that 5 years after a nuclear conflict, the global caloric production from maize and wheat availability would decrease by 13%, rice 5%, and soybean 2% globally and by more than 20% in 71 countries with a cumulative population of 1.3 billion people.

Similarly, Mark A. Harwell and Christine C. Harwell from Cornell University found that rice is the most sensitive of the grains to temperature reductions and that rice yields can be eliminated even in the absence of frost.

Ira Helfand MD in his book, Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?, stated that 10 years following a limited nuclear war in South Asia, in 1816, the Tambora eruption (also known as a Year without summer) caused four severe cold waves, June 6-11, July 9-11, and August 21 and August 30, brought killing frosts as far south as the Mid-Atlantic States, and in New England and Quebec there was even significant snowfall in June. These periods of frost caused extensive damage to crops. A similar pattern in Northern Europe caused crop losses in the range of 75% and the last multi-country famine in European history.

About soil fertility following the Fukushima nuclear fallout in Journal of Heredity Akimoto et al. examined that if radioactive substances adsorbed in the soil adversely affect the diversity and abundance of soil fauna, then radioactivity could also disturb nutrient cycling within ecosystems through the reduced density of soil arthropods, which function to decompose leaf litter.

Mousseau et al. in Oecologia, reported that radioactive substances have detrimental effects on soil arthropods, nutrient recycling could be hindered, leading to a long-term decline in forests.  According to their findings areas with high radioactivity around the Chernobyl NPP, as air radiation became higher, leaf litter decomposed more slowly, and the litter layer became thicker.

Soil Scientists Frere and Menzel in their book Behavior of Radioactive Fallouts in Soils and Plants reported that two years after a nuclear explosion at the Marshall Islands, the number of different plant species showing pathological effects and abnormalities increased with an increase in fallout.

radiation nuclear famine


What Simulated Studies Projected

Following a regional nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, Ozdogan et al carried out a simulated study to examine the impact on corn and soybean production in the US Corn Belt where more than 70% of US grain is produced. Published in Climatic Change this simulated study suggested both corn and soybeans showed notable yield reductions for a decade after the event. Corn yields declined 10–40 % while soybean yields dropped 2–20 %.

In a separate simulated study, also published in Climatic Change Xia and Robock examined the decline in Chinese middle season rice production in response to the 5 Tg (telegrams) of black carbon soot injection into the upper troposphere.

We Will Move on from this Devastating War Crisis. But How? To What?

The current world situation is volatile. Understanding the consequences that a potential nuclear conflict could inflict on human society and other forms of life emphasises the urgent need to eliminate the danger worldwide.

But even if the world survives through a world war, it would move on to another unwanted situation of paralysed and defected life as a result of the long-term effects of nuclear war.  

So, how can the world be saved from its destruction? What is the ultimate solution?

As His Holiness has repeatedly directed on numerous occasions, ‘there is only one solution to help the situation of the world return to normal and that is for mankind to turn to Allah the Exalted and to fulfil His rights and the rights of His creation.’

Again, ‘for the world to return to its normal conditions, we must bow before God and fulfil His rights and the rights of His creation.’

Now, it depends upon us and world leaders, if we take heed of His Holiness’ words to peacefully survive or selfishly lead the world to its destruction.

About the Author: Musa Sattar has an MSc in Pharmaceutical Analysis from Kingston University and also serves as the Assistant Manager of The Review of Religions and the Deputy Editor of the Science & Religion section.