We’re not ready for a nuclear war. Neither are our food systems.

Viewpoint: While we work to mitigate the climate crisis, an even more dire threat looms ahead: nuclear warfare that will upend our global food supply. It’s not too late for countries to prepare.
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Around the world, our food systems — the interconnected networks of food production, distribution, consumption and everything in between — have been faced with severe disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and growing inflation. 

In many nations, these disruptions have led to a food crisis for food banks, as the number of people requiring access to charities has ballooned while food supplies are limited. Disparities in food access are growing; in our own country of Canada, one in four people faces some form of food insecurity and one in three children risks going without breakfast. 

After a spate of flooding and wildfires in Canada that left thousands of livestock dead in 2021, Guelph University professor Evan Fraser noted in an op-ed that our nation’s food supply leaves us “nine meals from anarchy.” Our government, he argued, needs to plan for food systems resiliency in a changing world. 

Yet all these seemingly insurmountable challenges to our food systems still seem minuscule when compared to the growing tensions and the escalating language around the potential use of nuclear weapons due to the Russia-Ukraine war.

With very little hope for de-escalation or peace talks, the potential use of nuclear weapons in what each side considers an existential threat will have global repercussions. This threat is growing with the delivery of depleted uranium rounds to Ukraine from the United Kingdom, cluster munitions from the United States, and threats surrounding the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. 

And while only a few countries possess nuclear weapons, many “non-nuclear” countries host U.S nuclear bases in their territories and will therefore be impacted. It is unclear whether Canada and its NATO allies are prepared to handle a global disruption from a nuclear war.

The threat of global nuclear war may sound like hyperbole, but it is real. So is the possibility of a nuclear winter.

The threat of global nuclear war may sound like hyperbole, but it is real. It’s acknowledged in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock report; the clock, which represents how close humanity is to destroying the world with technologies of its own making, was recently set to 90 seconds to midnight, with midnight being a full-scale nuclear war and global catastrophe. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, too, has warned that we are entering “a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”

The fear of a two-degree temperature rise due to climate change will be dwarfed by the prediction that a nuclear war, followed by the injection of 5 Tg – about 11 billion pounds – of soot into the upper troposphere would drop the global temperature to values below Ice Age conditions for decades. This is what we call “nuclear winter.” 

In the event of a nuclear war between the United States and its NATO allies versus Russia, a study in Nature has estimated, the global average calories will drop by 90% with five billion people dying due to famine. Soil irradiation, global cooling and crop loss due to sunlight reduction will produce a world where growing many crops will be impossible, especially in the Northern hemisphere.

While nuclear war, as the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed, “cannot be won and must never be fought,” several studies have highlighted the need to nevertheless prepare in case the unthinkable happens. 

Researchers have highlighted different nuclear scenarios: The number of survivors will vary greatly if nuclear war happens during summer or winter, or whether it is a regional conflict (between, say, India and Pakistan) versus global (most likely NATO countries versus Russia). The number and power of nuclear weapons will also determine how much soot is released in the stratosphere and how long the sun will be blocked.

According to climatologist Alan Robock of the Rutgers University’s Climate Institute, nuclear weapons are an instrument of suicide rather than one of defense. “If country A used enough weapons only against military targets to prevent country B from retaliating, in what is called a ‘first strike,’ the climatic consequences could be such that everyone in country A could die,” he wrote.

Preparing for the worst

From a food systems resilience angle, it is important to note that there is no easy way to prepare for nuclear winter. The catastrophic nature of nuclear war is such that there is limited conclusive evidence on how people can survive. While the first step is to consider all options to ensure that nuclear weapons are abolished and to ensure that nuclear war would never see the light of day, there are practical steps that countries should take to protect their populations.

We identify three important food considerations that should be explored immediately: preliminary actions to undertake pre-war, post-nuclear attack food production options, and public education and awareness.

By preparing for a possible nuclear winter, governments still have the opportunity to prevent decades of destroyed soil, loss of sunlight and billions of deaths from famine.

First, ahead of any nuclear attack, we must ensure coordinated efforts to hold large reserves of food stockpiles as a buffer. Canada may, for example, want to ensure that it has more than three months’ worth of food for our own domestic use should global trade and agriculture be disrupted. This recommendation was highlighted in a recent study modeling how regional nuclear conflict would disrupt global food security. 

Unfortunately, current federal funding for such preparation is limited in Canada, and funding such as the $30 million Emergency Food Security Fund dedicated to COVID-19 is focused on supporting food banks and charities, without long-term considerations for extended disruption and the need for government mobilization. Actions such as holding food reserves, managing stock and assessing food assets would be critical to identify gaps and strengths.

Second, there needs to be more research dedicated to post-nuclear food production options. We know that large volcanic eruptions have caused some of the rapid cooling effect that has resulted in loss of crops, loss of daylight and disruptions in global agri-food production and ecosystems. So there’s no harm in planning for the worst-case scenario for nuclear, as doing so can also offer solutions for other less damaging scenarios. 

A study by researchers affiliated with the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, envisioning a balanced diet amidst so-called “Abrupt Sunlight Reduction Scenarios” (e.g nuclear winters and large volcanic eruptions), found that seaweeds and macroalgae are nutritious and scalable in a short period of time. We also urgently need to identify what the authors termed as “resilient foods” for abrupt sunlight reduction scenarios: more cold tolerant crops and greenhouse crops, single cell protein, as well as organs and meats from ruminant animals such as deer.

Last but by no means least, it’s important to make a serious investment in public education to spread awareness about the catastrophic nature of nuclear weapons and the impact of a nuclear winter. Our current population may no longer feel the same concerns as those who lived through the Cold War and has likely have forgotten the horrors of U.S. nuclear bombs on innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which may have lulled us into a dangerous complacency.

In a poll by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, researchers found that public awareness of nuclear winter is too low. Their study revealed how groups exposed to infographics outlining the effects of a nuclear winter decreased their support for retaliation with nuclear weapons by 13% to 16%, as compared with groups who did not receive any information. These results make clear the influence that accessible information has on the court of public opinion, and the stakes for winning over the public could never be higher.

The prospect of decades of destroyed soil, loss of sunlight and five billion people dying of famine is terrifying. However, with thoughtful and deliberate action, our governments still have the opportunity to prevent the unthinkable.

Tammara Soma is the research director and co-founder of the Food Systems Lab, and an assistant professor at the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. Kevin Maars is a student at the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.