Climate Change’s Impact on Nutrition

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When climate change is discussed, it is often in the context of natural disasters, rising temperatures, and rising sea levels. However, conversations about climate change should also include the impacts that climate change will have on food and nutrition.  Natural disasters such as floods, droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires can impact nutrition by driving down crop yields, hindering the transport of food, and destroying livestock. In addition, the rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere can decrease the nutritional value of global staple crops like rice and wheat.

The impact on nutrition is supported by research that was conducted by Sam Myers, the Director of the Planetary Health Alliance at the Harvard Chan School. His research found that exposure to the CO2 levels that are predicted for 2050 will impact crops such as wheat, corn, rice by taking away 10% of their zinc, 5% of their iron, and 8% of their protein content. These findings are significant because zinc, iron, and protein are all essential nutrients for people’s health. This is especially important for developing countries where deficiencies in zinc, iron, and protein lead to major burdens of disease in maternal mortality, childbirth issues, and brain development in children.

Beyond impacting the nutritious value of food, climate change impacts food quality, availability, costs, and an individual’s overall calorie consumption. Climate change can also impact all aspects of the food supply chain, including the production, storage, processing, distribution, retail, and marketing of agriculture. Agriculture is highly dependent on the climate, and changes in the severity or frequency of environmental events like droughts and floods due to climate change is a threat to nutrition and food access. Increases in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) can increase some crop yields in certain locations. The rising temperatures due to the effects of climate change would also create a need for energy-intensive cold storage chains.

Studies have also indicated that food-borne illness will increase with climate change. Several efforts are underway to improve nutrition entering the food supply chain and reduce the instances of food-borne illnesses in the conditions of climate change. Currently, researchers working across the agri-nutrition spectrum are engaged in a variety of research projects that utilize technologies to improve nutrition. One example of this is an innovation that involves the development of provitamin A (proVA) enriched maize, which is resistant to aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxins are secondary metabolites of fungi that can severely contaminate food supplies, often leading to negative health impacts. Currently, there is much concern surrounding the potential impacts that climate change can have on the infection of staple foods by fungal diseases. Ensuring the safety and nutrition of food through innovations like this is essential, especially with the impacts of climate change.

Another effort to address climate change and nutrition issues is the implementation of sustainability standards and assurance systems into food supply chains. For example, sustainability efforts are being implemented with the Cocoa and Forests Initiative (CFI), which was created in November 2017 to end deforestation and produce more food on less land. Such efforts are essential for helping farmers adapt to climate change by improving productivity and driving down emissions.

Innovations and efforts such as these are vital to address the intersection of nutrition and climate change.  As the effects of climate change have a growing impact in our daily lives, the combined efforts of nutrition scientists and climate scientists working cross-sector will be important work in maintaining the nutritious value of our food.