The Frightening Link Between Climate Change and Malnutrition

In fewer than 40 years, the average person will have 3.2 percent less food available to him/her, according to a new study.
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In fewer than 40 years, the average person will have 3.2 percent less food available to him/her, according to a new study.

By 2050, nearly half a million adults worldwide could die from climate-change-induced malnutrition, according to new research from the University of Oxford and the International Food Policy Research Institute. Food scarcity may be a well-documented consequence of global warming, but nutritional scarcity is a much less understood repercussion. Escalating temperatures, destructive weather events, prolonged drought, and overpopulation are as much a public health threat as they are indicators of a planet in turmoil.

In fewer than 40 years, the average person will have 3.2 percent less food available to her, and eat on average about four percent less fruits and vegetables, and 0.7 percent less red meat, according to the study. Such changes in diet will result in some 529,000 deaths—primarily in Southeast Asia and throughout the Western Pacific, in countries like China and India—the study found.

(Graphic: The Lancet)

(Graphic: The Lancet)

In particular, eating fewer fruits and vegetables will result in twice as many climate-related deaths as simply being underweight. High-income countries and the low-income countries of the Western Pacific and the Eastern Mediterranean are the most likely to experience heightened mortality rates, driven by less fruit and vegetable intake, the study notes. The most deaths from food scarcity are likely to occur in Southeast Asia and Africa. Countries like Vietnam, Greece, and South Korea could experience higher rates of climate-related deaths overall.

"The health effects of climate change from changes in dietary and weight-related risk factors could be substantial, and exceed other climate-related health impacts that have been estimated," the study authors write.

By using data from the International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade—which forecasts food production and consumption worldwide—researchers were able to create an agricultural model of the what the world's food supply will look like in 2050. The model was also based on a climate change scenario in which the average global air temperature is two degrees Celsius higher than average temperatures between 1986 and 2005.

They also performed a comparative risk assessment to analyze how changes in food availability and consumption—and as a result, diet and weight—influence health issues like heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Such climate-related deaths could be reduced 29 to 71 percent, however, the researchers note, if climate change adaptation broadens to include public health.

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Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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