By Ernest Corea
Support for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation suffered a set-back when Republican Senator Richard Lugar was defeated at a pre-election primary (May 8) in the state of Indiana. He was eliminated by a tea party supported contender, and will not be the Republican Party candidate for the Senate in November. Lugar has announced, as well, that he will not run as an Independent.
This removes from the federal legislature a widely recognized and respected legislative activist on nuclear disarmament related issues that most of his colleagues would prefer to tuck under their mattresses and forget. Among them: a timely caution on the serious risk of nuclear famine.
Lesser beings are now left to focus on and bring good sense into decisions that impinge on security, stability, and survival.
Issues high on the international agenda include consideration of NATO’s Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, and the attempt in the US House of Representatives to adopt legislation that would restrict implementation of the new START agreement.
On top of all that, comes a new report which presents and analyses scientific evidence, to show that even a regional nuclear war – conflict between India and Pakistan is the example cited – could cause massive disruption of agriculture producing countries far removed from the theatre of war. As always in such circumstances, the poor would be the most harmed.
The countries directly involved would obviously suffer directly and widely, and their painstakingly nurtured agricultural productivity would be lost, their crops and crop lands turned into radioactive dust. The warning now is that, in addition to direct results felt by nuclear combatants, repercussions would be felt elsewhere, too, with some major food producers hit hard.
The report, Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk – Global Impact of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition – was published by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its US affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility.
(International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is a non-partisan federation of national medical organisations in 63 countries who share the common goal of creating a more peaceful and secure world freed from the threat of nuclear annihilation. Physicians for Social Responsibility is the largest physician-led organization in the U.S. working to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming. Dr. Ira Helfand, author of the report, is the North American vice president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.)
Says Helfand: “The grim prospect of nuclear famine requires a fundamental change in our thinking about nuclear weapons. The new evidence that even relatively small nuclear arsenals of countries such as India and Pakistan could cause long lasting, global damage to the Earth’s ecosystems and threaten hundreds of millions of malnourished people over a decade would be a disaster unprecedented in human history.”
The credentials of the author and of the institutions associated with the report, as well as its substance, make the report compelling. So, consider then, the world’s current state of food security or, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) likes to put it, insecurity.
Food insecurity is generally beset by unpredictable conditions, more so in some years than in others, with the threats to human health and lives unevenly spread across the rich and poor countries of the world. Thus, approaches to issues that affect or are affected by food security and insecurity vary greatly. Where the wealthier nations grapple with the health risks of obesity, people in poor countries confront the challenges of hunger, and hidden hunger – malnutrition.
In addition, weather patterns including early signs of climate change, productivity, production, infrastructure, skewed trade practices, and investment all have a direct or indirect impact on food insecurity.
In 2011, the last year for which complete statistics are available, the world was not affected by the kind of crisis it experienced in 2006-2008. The aftermath of what was experience at that time are, however, “challenging our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by half in 2015” say the heads of the three food-related agencies headquartered in Rome. FAO, IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) and WFP, (the World Food Program).
They added the caution that “even if the MDG were achieved by 2015 some 600 million people in developing countries suffering from hunger on a daily basis is never acceptable.”
If extended food insecurity is already considered unacceptable, how should the international community respond to the greater danger of nuclear war-induced famine?
One Billion at Risk
Helfand and a team of experts in agriculture and nutrition worked with data produced by scientists who have studied the effects on climate of a hypothetical nuclear war between India and Pakistan. They determined, says Physicians for Social Responsibility, that “plunging temperatures and reduced precipitation in critical farming regions, caused by soot and smoke lofted into the atmosphere by multiple nuclear explosions, would interfere with crop production and affect food availability and prices worldwide.”
In specific terms, a PSR statement points out, Helmland and his associates found that:
–In the US, corn (maize) production would decline by an average of 10 percent for an entire decade, with the most severe decline (20 percent) in fifth year. Soybean production would decline by about 7 percent, with the most severe loss, more than 20 percent, in the fifth year.
–China would experience a significant decline in 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.
–Resulting increases in food prices would make food inaccessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest.
There is little left for the imagination, in this stark assessment, considering the fact that China and the US are the leading producers of those commodities.
The report itself states:
“The 925 million people in the world who are chronically malnourished have a baseline consumption of 1750 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. The number of people threatened by nuclear war-induced famine would be well over one billion.”
The late S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s eloquent foreign minister and prescient political strategist, would say that “man does not live by bread alone but without bread he does not live at all.” This is lightly stated but heavy in significance.
Agriculture lies at the core of development and of continued progress even in industrialised countries. That’s why it is fair to say that a breakdown of food production and distribution in the dimensions spelled out by Helfland and his colleagues would result in unimaginable human suffering – over time, deaths – and eventually, in societal collapse across many countries that were not involved in the hypothetical regional conflict.
The quick and easy response to the alert that has been sounded would go something like this: “Yes, the danger exists, but only if India and Pakistan actually engage in a nuclear war. They have unfortunately turned the sub-continent into a nuclear neighborhood but have exercised restraint and responsibility in not plunging the region into nuclear destruction. What is needed is for the international community to use all the leverage it can muster, to help both countries remain at peace.”
Sure, but what is to prevent a militarized regime some day in the future from discarding the bonds of restraint? Besides, India and Pakistan are not the world’s only regional powers with nuclear capacity. Israel, for instance, is widely believed to be a nuclear state. Others aspire to the same status in a volatile part of the world.
Efforts to persuade Middle East nations to talk to each other about keeping their region free of nuclear danger have fallen on politically deaf ears that have not been supplied with hearing aids. A preliminary regional conference scheduled for December 2012 is likely to be postponed.
The real safeguard against nuclear famine has to come not from some hit-or-miss “let’s all keep the peace” process, with soothing songs warbled around a campfire, but with renewed international commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Jayantha Dhanapala, a Sri Lankan diplomat who was the UN Under Secretary General for Disarmament and is currently president of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, has spent much of his professional life beating out the message of nuclear disarmament. He sums up the situation succinctly:
“Scientific evidence continues to confirm empirically what we already know – that nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapon of mass destruction ever invented with unrivaled genetic and ecological effects. And yet, unlike biological and chemical weapons they have not been outlawed because of vested interests.
“Nine countries have 20,530 nuclear warheads among them, 95 percent with the US and Russia. As long as these weapons exist others, including terrorists, will want them. As long as we have nuclear weapons their use by intention or accident; by states or by non-state actors is inevitable. Their total elimination through a Nuclear Weapons Convention is therefore the only solution.”
A tough sell? Indeed. But consider this: what an outstanding outcome awaits the sale.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.