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Climate change and health risks: Fundamental Facts about Food, Health and Climate Change

Whether we gather with others to share a meal, enjoy lunch in solitude, grab something from the deli or dash through a local drive-in, we all eat as part of our daily routine.

Most of us pay little attention to the link between adequate nutrition, safe water and climate change. Rather, when the term “climate change” pops into view we think in terms of weather patterns, temperature extremes, melting glaciers, at risk polar bears, the Paris Agreement, student climate strikes and urgent pronouncements from the scientific community.

Now, however, it’s time to consider more earnestly the connection between climate change and something basic to our survival and well-being: nutritional health.

The climate crisis poses a risk to ‘food security’ (where people get their next meal) throughout the world. The risk of malnutrition is widely documented as staple crops (corn, wheat, rice), and fruits and vegetables become harder to grow, more expensive and less nutritious. Absent effective action, millions of people – perhaps even billions – are likely to suffer harm.

Eighty percent of the world’s crops are rain-fed, which means farmers must rely on predicable weather for adequate production. Climate change interferes with such predictability. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “Each degree-Celsius increase in global means temperature reduces global yields of wheat, rice, maize (corn) and soybean.”

Approximately two-thirds of the calories we consume are provided by these crops. They are central to our health and well-being. Consider, for example, what it would mean to find no bread or tortillas on the shelves of the grocery stores, no bags of flour, no sacks of rice or beans.

According to the California Department of Agriculture, ”Over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California.” Not all commodities grown here remain within the borders of the U.S. California is also a major exporter and what we produce sustains the health of people in other regions. Suppose climate change decreases California’s agricultural output even slightly – a distinct possibility.

As weather patterns change, crops cannot adapt, fruit and nut bearing trees wither and die, vegetable plants deteriorate, and water supply in the central valley drops steeply.

The United States Department of Agriculture reports that food security – or insecurity – is a global issue: one in nine people on the globe are undernourished, many severely so, particularly in underdeveloped countries.

In the United States, almost one in eight households don’t know where they will get their next meal. As crops fail, productivity decreases and prices increase. People will be displaced from areas where crops can no longer be sustained, adding to migration (with nowhere to go), global unrest and destabilized governments.

Much has been written about the value of moving toward a plant-based diet and we know that reducing the number of livestock could cut methane emissions by billions of tons. Doing so would require large-scale changes to what people eat.

At the same time, we would need to increase the volume of edible plants, extend agricultural land and increase irrigation even as water supplies dwindle. In addition, we know that planting massive new forests could remove meaningful amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Thus, we have two “goods” competing for land resources with the possible outcome of sharply increased food prices and millions of people at risk of undernourishment. There are no easy answers.

Food waste is another environmental concern with an overriding health impact. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says, “Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption – approximately 1.3 billion tons – gets lost or wasted.” In the United States and other developed countries this translates to 200-250 pounds of wasted food per person each year. As a result, we squander precious resources — water, land, energy, labor and capital — and needlessly emit more greenhouse gases.

Moving on to the issue of safe water. Diarrheal disease is a major public health issue in developing countries and, while not generally increasing in the United States, remains a concern, particularly as warming temperatures draw disease-bearing mosquitoes further north. Pathogens (germs), air and water temperatures, snow and rain irregularities, extreme rainfall and out-of-the-normal seasonal weather patterns affect water-borne disease transmission.

In the U.S., children and the elderly are at greatest risk of serious illness, as are those exposed to inadequately or untreated groundwater. Global travel patterns also increase the risk of introducing vector-borne diseases to new locations where people have not developed immunity to such conditions and for which there may be no effective vaccines.

We are fortunate to have safe and sufficient water for the time being in our immediate geographical area. However, conditions are such that contaminants, runoff, changes in snowpack melt patterns, depletion of critically important groundwater and competition for water resources by vested interest groups that may ignore the “common good” all play a role in the availability of safe water.

As we learn more about the complexities of climate change, we can act in ways that make a difference. I have a little poster in my office that reads, “It is not as important to do great things as it is to do little things with great love.” Great things must indeed be done, but so must the small things.

Start here:

  • Open, print and hang this poster on your refrigerator as a daily reminder to “Do good: Save food”—www.fao.org/3/a-i7059e.pdf
  • Attend community meetings.
  • Work with schools and public agencies to cut food waste.
  • Patronize “green” restaurants. (Many are taking action to decrease food waste.)
  • If you are not already following composting guides provided by Napa Waste and Recycling, start now. (See: naparecycling.com/residential-food-composting)
  • Plan meals with others in your household and follow your shopping list so as to avoid impulse buying and over-purchase of food that is tossed away within days.
  • Try “Meatless Mondays” – see suggestions at www.meatlessmonday.com

And always remember: Enough is as good as a feast!

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Lynne Baker is a grandmother, retired nurse, teacher and a member of Napa Climate NOW!, a local non-profit organization advocating for smart climate solutions based on the latest climate science.

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