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Food and sustainability

Climate change: agriculture and health are paying the price

The climate is changing and the consequences are being felt in agriculture where modifications to food production may have a negative impact on health.

One of the biggest consequences of the changes to the climate we have been experiencing in the past decades could be agriculture. Global warming (but not only, as even though the planet as a whole is warming, some areas are sporadically getting colder) alters which species are cultivated and, consequently, global food habits, in turn impacting on people’s health. This phenomenon is confirmed by a study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, which focuses on research by Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on The Future of Food.
This is a valiant attempt to quantify the effects of climate change on the future of food production,” says Andrew Challinor, expert on climate impacts at the University of Leeds. The research also bears testament to the fact that, for the very first time, an important medical journal has published this type of topic.

How diet changes
That climate change can have consequences on health is not new. “Climate change has been described as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” says Springmann, who reminds us that its effects can be both direct (heat waves, flooding, etc.) and indirect (crop losses, famine and displacements of populations).
If climate change were to continue at this rate and in this direction, quantities of food harvested would be considerably reduced, with consequent price increases and reduced access to food for many people who would then be fighting malnutrition.
But the impact of the climate on agriculture and health is not only a question of temperatures and low caloric intake. The aforementioned study also explores the composition of diet, which may change due to variations in climate. Indeed, according to Springmann et al.’s data, by 2050 climate change will result, for each individual, in a 3.2% – 100 calories – reduction in the global availability of food, a 4% decline in the consumption of fruit and vegetables and a fall of 0.7% in the consumption of meat.

Health is suffering
And what will the changes be to health? Forecasts by the English researchers aren’t rosy: data projected for 2050 reveal 529,000 deaths related to the climate, caused more by modifications to the composition of meals (less fruit and vegetables) than by the reduction of daily calorie intake (which in itself would be a beneficial phenomenon). These figures are somewhat alarming, particularly when you consider that, in the absence of climate change, an improved availability of food and an increase in world consumption could prevent almost two billion deaths globally. The prediction models used in the study stress that the negative impact on health will be felt particularly in low and middle-income countries, especially nations in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia, while India and China will be the scene to about three-quarters of all deaths related to climate.

In a bid to provide a full picture, it must also be said that climate change, in a certain sense, would favour a reduction in obesity and the consumption of animal protein. However, we mustn’t forget that this fall in obesity would be counterbalanced by the increased number of people underweight due to a lower availability of food.



Act now to limit the damage
The Springmann et al. study reveals that the effects of climate change on the health of the population vary considerably in the 155 countries analysed. We therefore need different environmental, political and economic interventions that take into consideration the specificities of each individual nation.
One thing, however, is certain: the first step is to reduce emissions. This intervention would have a considerably positive effect on health, reducing the number of deaths related to climate by 29% to 71%, depending on the contexts and scenarios analysed and on the force of the measures applied. For instance, in an “average emissions” scenario with an average increase in the air surface temperature of 1.3-1.4°C from 2046-2065 compared with 1986-2005, deaths related to unbalanced diets and body weight could be reduced by 30%, compared with a “high emissions” scenario that would cause temperatures to rise by a fatal 2°C, an increase considered by experts to be the point of no-return.


The position of the BCFN
The BCFN Foundation recommends that the sustainable management of resources and the land be privileged, and underlines the need to favour research and the transfer of knowledge, skills and technologies on the one hand, but especially, on the other, to promote sustainable lifestyles and foods.
As such, the Foundation makes available the results of the latest research into the correlation between food and environmental impact. Consumers must, above all, be kept informed and up-to-date, such that they can make conscious choices to favour their own health, as well as that of the planet, and guarantee a sufficient number of resources for future generations.
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