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Climate change effects and the threat to nutritional quality

There is particular urgency around the threat to the nutritional quality of our staple crops as increasing temperatures continue to have an effect.  Genuine food security is only possible when all that affects food safety across the food chain is also addressed. The potential for foodborne diseases and pathogenic invasions of plant and animal species heightens as temperatures rise.

Emerging Risk for Food Safety

The World Health Organization have estimated 4210 000 global death cases related to foodborne diseases in 2010, mainly in African, Southeast Asian and eastern Mediterranean countries (WHO 2017).

Climate change is expected to cause the emergence of new types of foodborne diseases (FAO 2020). Fluctuations in temperature with longer heat periods for instance increase the survival, persistence and transmission of pathogens in the environment which results in contamination and foodborne disease cases (Tirado and Aberman 2014).

In parallel, research indicates that rising water temperatures is associated with the higher growth rate of pathogenic bacteria in the marine environment (Vezzulli et al, 2016). This association implies that as the surface water temperature rises, the number of pathogenic infections is also expected to increase. Scientists have already projected a 20,000 increase in infection cases caused by salmonellosis in Europe throughout this decade (EFSA 2020).

The prevalence of harmful algal blooms is an additional risk resulting from ocean acidification and eutrophication. These algal blooms cause phycotoxins, which have a harmful impact on human health as well as animal mortality. Exposure to phycotoxins through seafood consumption is a significant concern for food safety and climate change is expected to increase the frequency and  intensity of algal blooms even further (FAO 2020).

Emerging Risks for Food Security- Depletion of Plant nutrients

It hardly needs reminding that human nutrition as is the case for every animal in the biosphere, depends directly or indirectly on plant consumption for nutrients – we receive 60% of dietary protein, 80% of iron and 70% of zinc requirements from plants. So, it is alarming to note that scientists predict that extended periods of heat and drought as well as CO2 emissions will cause a reduction in crop yields and the amount of nutrients naturally present in plants.

The Planetary Health Alliance in Harvard with reference to projected 2050 COemissions, found that plants can lose 10% of their zinc nutrients, 5% of iron and 8% of plant protein under the stressed conditions humanity faces if global warming isn’t arrested.

What is the impact of lower nutrient quantities?

Zinc deficiency affects the immune system and increases vulnerability to malaria, lung infections and deadly diarrheal diseases. These diseases claim the lives of some 30,000 children younger than 5 each year. Iron deficiency is linked to nearly 60,000 deaths and 34 million “life years” lost to disability or premature death every year, and can also result in decreased work capacity, reduced IQ and anemia.

Meanwhile, by 2050, the vitamin B content of rice is expected to drop 17 to 30%, upping the risk of deficiencies in folate (B9), thiamine (B1) and riboflavin (B2) for tens of millions of people, especially in regions dependent on rice.

Lowest emitters to suffer most

The countries hit hardest are in the main those that have contributed the least to global carbon emissions, particularly nations in South Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, and the former Soviet Union. Scientists also predict dramatic increases in zinc and protein deficiencies in India, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya and other emerging economies.

Governments and international institutions are scrambling to keep pace with the rate of climate change and counter the worst of its effects. While food security is an understandable target for protective measures and action, a holistic approach involving plant health safety, animal health and food safety is crucial. Close collaboration of policymakers, regulators, scientific researchers and R&D innovation and industry must be harnessed to effectively cope with the challenge.

Assessing climate change effects and responses

Climate change is intensifying, bringing a heightened risk of foodborne diseases and nutrient depletion in staple crops. In many cases, these impacts are disproportionately felt by nations who lack the resources or capacities to handle such threats, leaving them extremely vulnerable.

At Farrelly Mitchell, we diligently support governments, NGO’s, DFI’s and multilaterals as they look to establish stronger, more resilience food systems in developing regions. Our developmental specialists work alongside policymakers, regulators, and scientists to design innovative new policies, strategies, and tools to address growing food security and food safety concerns throughout the agrifood industry, ensuring long-term sustainability, resiliency, and self-sufficiency.


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