More than half a million people could die in the next few decades as a result of reduced global food production caused by climate change, according to new research published Wednesday in The Lancet.
The study, from the UK-based Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford, is the first of its kind to assess the impact of climate change on diet composition and body-weight. It found that unless action is taken to reduce global carbon emissions, climate change—and the resulting droughts, floods, and severe weather events—could cut food availability and in turn lead to roughly 530,000 deaths, predominantly in the Western Pacific region (264,000 additional deaths) and Southeast Asia (164,000).
Previous research has shown how climate change will impact global crop production. Last year, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that 16 to 22 percent of wild crop species may be in danger of extinction within the next 50 years, making climate change-related food insecurity one of “the most daunting challenges facing humankind.”
The Oxford study extends on this research, finding that climate change could cut the projected global improvement in food availability by about a third by 2050, and lead to average per-person reductions in food availability of 3.2 percent (99 kcal per day), in fruit and vegetable intake of 4 percent, and red meat consumption of 0.7 percent. That could lead to changes in the energy content and composition of diets, and these changes “will have major consequences for health,” said study leader Marco Springmann.
As seen in the chart below, climate change is expected to increase diet- and food-related deaths through a number of different mechanisms:
The hardest-hit countries, the researchers found, were likely to be middle- and low-income nations in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, but also some in Europe and the Americas. But it’s not just the world’s poorest that have to be concerned about the impacts of climate change, which is not only a key point for U.N. negotiators, but has also been suggested by other studies.
The world’s wealthiest (and well-fed, and overweight) people also risk fundamental changes to their diets as crop productivity falls for fruits and vegetables, which are critical planks in the food pyramid.
“Climate change is likely to have a substantial negative impact on future mortality, even under optimistic scenarios,” Springmann said. “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.”
As reporter Chelsea Harvey wrote at the Washington Post, the study is “a sobering look at just a single facet of the climate change dilemma. Of course, the impacts of climate change are expected to cause human deaths in a variety of other ways as well. The increased risk of infectious disease, natural disasters, forced migration and civil unrest are just a few examples.”
“Though farmers have seen negative impacts related to climate change for decades, these impacts have been exacerbated in recent years,” he continued. “Even relatively small temperature increases are having significant impacts on farming, including accelerated desertification and salinization of arable land, increased presence of pests, crop losses due to high temperatures and flooding, and, paradoxically, increased clean water scarcity.”
To confront these challenges, Zinn argued, policymakers must recognize that “the global agriculture system is at the heart of both the problem and the solution.”
“Industrial agriculture is a key driver in the generation of greenhouse gases (GHGs),” he explained. “Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery, monocultures, land change, deforestation, refrigeration, waste and transportation are all part of a food system that generates significant emissions and contributes greatly to global climate change.”
“Addressing climate change on the farm can not only tackle the challenging task of agriculture-generated GHGs,” Zinn said, “but it can also produce more food with fewer fossil fuels.”