Climate change threatens diet of rich and poor

Thursday, 10 March, 2016

The impact of climate change on food security has been well documented. However, according to a new study, reduced food availability will prompt changes to diet — such as reductions in fruit and vegetable intake — that could cause twice as many deaths as undernutrition.

The study — one of the first to focus on the wider health effects of agricultural production — reveals that climate change could lead to average per-person reductions in food availability of 3.2% (414 kJ/day), in fruit and vegetable intake of 4.0% (14.9 g/day), and red meat consumption of 0.7% (0.5 g/day).

The research findings, published in The Lancet, predict that these changes could be responsible for around 529,000 extra deaths in 2050, compared to a future without climate change in which increases in food availability and consumption could have prevented 1.9 million deaths.

Lead researcher Dr Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford explained that, as well as impacting food security, climate change will result in changes in food availability and intake that affect dietary and weight-related risk factors such as low fruit and vegetable intake, high red meat consumption, and high bodyweight. “These all increase the incidence of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer, as well as death from those diseases,” he said.

“Our results show that even modest reductions in the availability of food per person could lead to changes in the energy content and composition of diets, and these changes will have major consequences for health,” said Dr Springmann.

The researchers used an agricultural economic model fitted with data on emission trajectories, socioeconomic pathways and possible climate responses to evaluate the effects on global food production, trade and consumption for 2050.

The biggest impacts of changes in fruit and vegetable intake are likely to be felt across high-income countries (accounting for 58% of all changes in deaths), in low- and middle-income countries of the Western Pacific (74%), Europe (60%) and the Eastern Mediterranean (42%). Southeast Asia and Africa top the list for underweight-related deaths in adults, accounting for 47% and 49% of all changes in deaths in 2050 respectively.

Many climate-related deaths will be offset by reductions in obesity; however, the reduction in deaths from obesity will be balanced by an increase in the number of deaths cause by people being underweight.

The authors say cutting emissions could have substantial health benefits, reducing the number of climate-related deaths by 29–71% depending on the strength of the interventions. For example, in a medium emission scenario (increases in global average surface air temp of 1.3 to 1.4°C in 2046–65 compared to 1986–2005), the numbers of diet- and weight-related deaths could be reduced by 30% compared with the worst-case, high-emission scenario.

According to Dr Springmann, “Climate change is likely to have a substantial negative impact on future mortality, even under optimistic scenarios. Adaptation efforts need to be scaled up rapidly. Public-health programs aimed at preventing and treating diet- and weight-related risk factors, such as increasing fruit and vegetable intake, must be strengthened as a matter of priority to help mitigate climate-related health effects.”

Originally published here.

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