I'm basically defining 'Cold War', for the purpose of this question as the whole stretch of time between 1947 and 1991. During this time did either side plan to attack the other's food production on a strategic scale?

According to Wikipedia on biological weapons, both sides developed anti-agricultural biological weapons (diseases against crops or livestock + delivery system). The US used Agent Orange 'defenisvely' as part of scorched earth tactics in Vietnam.

Where there ever plans, on either side, for strategic attacks on the other side's food production? Say, a doctrine around when and if and how to attack the enemy's food production - or more exact, the enemy population's food supply?

Maybe deliberately starving civilians is a war crime in a way that bombing them is not, so plans along that line may be more classified than others, so maybe we don't know. An answer along the lines "nothing to be found with a comprehensive research" is fine by me.

  • The original Agent Orange application was not aimed at crops (requested by Diem, 1961) but the chemicals in use were certainly able to destroy crops. See answer. Oct 4, 2016 at 15:37
  • I remember reading (or viewing a documentary) stating that during Operation Mongoose (CIA backed terrorism against Cuba), crops were targetted, but I cannot find the specific reference... maybe someone can provide it.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 4, 2016 at 21:55
  • Maybe the answer is no, war planners assumed a swift victory thanks to nuclear weapons, attacks on crops manifest as a food shortage moths later so would not be relevant? IDK, but maybe that's another line of enquiry to answer the question.
    – mart
    Apr 26, 2017 at 7:52

2 Answers 2


Arguably yes, but one doesn't have to look for exotic biological weapons when ordinary nuclear weapons could be used. The whole logic behind "counter value" targeting was to have a second-strike that could survive the initial onslaught (dispersed bombers and submarines) and strike back at civilian targets (since hitting back at military targets might not be as helpful, especially since some of the enemy's fixed nuclear targets - airbases, sub pens, and missile silos, would be empty at that point.)

A recently-declassified list of US Cold War nuclear targets suggests that "agricultural centers" were on the list. Presumably the same would have been true of Soviet nuclear targeting as well.



  • Good find! I'm not sure I agree with your conclusion, agricultural production is hardly mentioned, while 'population' seems to be an important target category.
    – mart
    Apr 26, 2017 at 7:09

There is good reason to believe that such a strategy was considered ... at least until the 1970s.

The strategic use of defoliants arose before the Cold War. From the Agent Orange Wikipedia entry, that mind set seems to have sustained for a few decades before a treaty was signed in the mid 1970's.

Several herbicides were discovered as part of efforts by the US and
the British to develop herbicidal weapons for use during WWII.
1 {snip} In 1943, the U.S. Department of the Army
contracted the University of Chicago to study the effects of 2,4-D
and 2,4,5-T on cereal grains (including rice) and broadleaf crops.
From these studies arose the concept of using aerial applications of
herbicides to destroy enemy crops to disrupt their food supply.

Over a thousand chemical tests were run for the next few years in the US. The idea of destroying crops didn't die with the end of WW II.

The British were the first to employ herbicides and defoliants to destroy the crops, bushes, and trees of communist insurgents in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency

Given the development and use demonstrated by at least one side, it is reasonable to conclude that such a strategy was on the table for the first few decades of the Cold War. While I don't have a source for the USSR side, the development of nuclear, chem, and bio weapons, and plans to use them on both sides suggests that both sides left the options open to use them, and had plans in case they chose to. (Defoliants/herbicides are a sub set of bio warfare). The Soviet biological warfare program dates to the 1920's, and there was a herbicidal component to that program as well as the disease spreading program.

it is interesting to note that President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam (in 1961) asked the United States to conduct aerial herbicide spraying in his country. In August of that year, the South Vietnamese Air Force conducted herbicide operations with American help. {After a significant policy debate} ... in November 1961, President Kennedy authorized Operation Ranch Hand, U.S. Air Force's herbicide program in Vietnam. (Same source as above; paraphrased).

It is chilling to consider the various means that were researched and considered usable against one another by the powers in the Cold War.

While I don't have an 'end date' that mind set saw considerable political push back in the 1970's. ("lessons learned" from Viet Nam, so to speak).

The Environmental Modification Convention, was opened for signature and ratification on May 18, 1977, and entered into force in October 5, 1978. The convention prohibits the military or other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects. Many states do not regard this as a complete ban on the use of herbicides and defoliants in warfare but it does require case-by-case consideration.

So were herbicides still on the table up until the wall came down? Nothing to confirm or deny so far, but likely those plans got shelved during the period of summits and armaments reduction talks of the 1980's. (Will try to find a confirmation and edit if I do).

1 Judith Perera; Andy Thomas (Apr 18, 1985). "This horrible natural experiment". New Scientist, April 18, 1985: 34–36.

  • 1
    Actually one of the few points of agreement between the USA and Russia was the trade in food...something Jimmy Carter stopped in 1979 because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan but was resumed under Ronald Reagan. The Soviet system simply did not work for anyone in their "Union." Oct 4, 2016 at 20:25
  • @user14394 Sure, I remember that well: détente opened a lot of doors. The question here is about "war plans" in terms of the kind of "total war" thinking that carried over from WW II into the Cold War, so that's what I tried to address. Oct 4, 2016 at 20:27
  • 2
    I think there is no evidence that anyone wanted to target food production. Defoliants main purpose is not destroying food crops, but defoliation of forests where partisans hide, so that they could be seen and attacked from air.
    – Alex
    Oct 4, 2016 at 21:11
  • @Alex Hard to prove a negative, but since the US and the Brits began planning to target crops in WW II, and the Brits did it in Malaysia in the 50's, the reasonable position is that those plans were likely, even if only contingency plans, until the 70's. So we can't say there is no evidence, but I would certainly like to find more evidence that crops were a target/on the target list. Oct 4, 2016 at 21:37
  • 2
    @Alex the fact that both the Americans and British actually used herbicides is indeed evidence of USE, which goes well past planning, in two cold war based conflicts: Malaysia and Viet Nam. Those were absolutely, like Korea, cold war conflicts (proxy fights) short of direct conflict between the USSR and the West. That means that in the first half of the cold war, they were both planned for and used. Oct 5, 2016 at 1:35

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