By Taru Bahl
A formative study led by Dr Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the future of food at the University of Oxford, UK is the first of its kind to assuage the impact of climate change on diet composition and body weight. In doing so, it estimates the number of deaths that will have been caused in 155 countries by 2050.
India among top 20 countries most at risk
The study provides evidence that clearly points towards the effect of climate change that has far reaching consequences that are not necessarily of the environmental kind. This new and startling study has estimated that due to global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change –more than 500,000 adults could end up losing their lives worldwide.
Much research has been carried out on food security and its consequences, but few have focused so much on the far-reaching health effects of agricultural food production. The kind of alarm bells the study rings in, are worth making note of, as programme managers and policy makers refine their food safety, environmental sustainability and zoonoses prevention and control strategies
The study model points out that the effects of climate change on food availability and consumption are subject to large regional variations. The study assesses India to be among the top 20 countries most at risk from extreme weather changes.
According to Dr Springmann, changes in food availability and intake affect dietary and weight-related risk factors such as low vegetable and fruit intake, high red and processed meat consumption, and increased body weight. These in turn contribute to upping the incidence of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Link between global emissions and food safety
The findings of the study reveal that unless punitive action is taken to curb global emissions, climate change could cut the projected improvement in food availability by about a third by 2050, and lead to average per-person reductions in food availability of 3.2% (99 kcal per day), in fruit and vegetable intake of 4.0% (14.9g per day) and red meat consumption of 0.7% (0.5g per day)
The results predict that these changes could be the cause of around 529,000 extra deaths in 2050, likened to a future without climate change, in which increases in food availability and consumption could have prevented 1.9 million deaths.
These unabated global emissions are estimated to hit the public health scenarios of middle income and low income countries worst. Topping the list of “aggrieved” nations would be China followed by India. Predominantly low and middle income countries in the Western Pacific region (264,000 deaths) and Southeast Asia (164,000) are the countries likely to be most affected, with almost three-quarters of all climate related deaths expected to occur in China (248,000) and India (136,000). On a per-capita basis, even Greece (124 deaths per million people) and Italy (89 deaths per million people) are also bound to be significantly affected.
Economic modelling framework used to evaluate effects on global food production
Dr Springmann and his colleagues applied an agricultural economic modelling framework 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. They calculated the additional number of deaths linked to changes in diet and bodyweight under a middle-of-the-road growth picture and four different climate change scenarios (high emission, two medium emission and one low emission) , compared to a world without climate change.
The most resounding impact of change in fruit and vegetable consumption is likely to be felt in high-income countries (accounting for almost 58% of all changes in deaths) ,74% in low and middle-income countries (LMIC) of the Western Pacific, Europe (60%) , Eastern Mediterranean (42%) whereas Southeast Asia and Africa head the list for low or underweight related deaths in adults, accounting for a staggering 47% and 49% of all changes in deaths in 2050 respectively.
Reversing some of the damage
Adaptation efforts will need to be scaled up rapidly as public-health programmes look more closely towards mitigating climate related health effects. Some of this can be achieved by preventing and treating diet and weight-related risk factors and increasing fruit and vegetable intake. Awareness drives must begin by targeting students, corporate, manufacturing industries, governments and communities. Ways of cutting emissions should also be widely discussed and encouraged. A concerted effort has to be made across all levels to ensure damages related to climate change and agriculture production are minimised.
Taru is a freelance journalist and communication consultant with PHFI/RCZI