On today’s Lempert Report we talk a lot about climate change and how it has an effect on the supply chain – how the wildfires, floods and the other natural disasters have driven up prices and created shortages for many of our foods – what we haven’t heard a lot about is how climate change will have an effect on just how nutritious our foods will be.
A new review paper, published in Advances in Nutrition, draws together the existing science of how climate change threatens staple grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts across the world, while also underscoring the significant need for further research. The team of public health researchers from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation in London conclude that climate change—including the combined impacts of rising temperature and carbon dioxide, rising sea levels, and climate disasters—will cause crop yields, or the amount of food we can produce on the planet, to fall. The authors project that this could trigger increased spikes in food prices, deepening food insecurity and micronutrient deficiencies. “The paper shows very clearly that production will definitely be diminished,” said Martin Bloem, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and an author on the review. The researchers found that foods rich in micronutrients—particularly vitamin A, zinc, and iron—will see decreased yields, especially threatening the staple food and nutrient supply of low- and middle-income countries. While unable to draw more nuanced conclusions, Bloem says “there’s enough evidence that we need to [turn to] solutions.”
Today the reality is that over 2 billion people, or 30 percent of the global population, suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, a major cause of death and disease, and the authors project this will likely worsen. As the climate crisis progresses, the planet is becoming less inhabitable—not only for humans and other animals, but also for our plants and crops. Richard Semba, the review’s lead author and a professor at the School of Public Health, hopes the paper will draw attention to this urgent but often overlooked aspect of the climate crisis. “We’re watching this disaster unfold,” he told Civil Eats, “People who work in international health and nutrition need to start pointing out the changes that are going to come with rising temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and sea level rise.” Both iron and zinc are found in legumes, nuts, and grains, which the authors expect will see critical drops in yields.
Zinc deficiency, especially in children, makes you a lot more susceptible to severe cases or dying from respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, [and malaria]. Iron deficiency can cause anemia, lower IQ and cognitive ability, reduce work capacity, and increase mortality for mothers and their children. The review also looked at vitamin A, commonly found in leafy green vegetables and yellow and orange fruit. Vitamin A is important for immunity and decreasing the risk of infections; a deficiency can also lead to vision problems, including night blindness. “We need to change the food system,” said Bloem. “We need to do it fast and we need to do it with everyone.