How climate change will affect nutrition

How climate change will affect nutrition

As an industry, 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 globally 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, The Potential Impact of Climate Change on the Micronutrient-Rich Food Supply, published early October 2021, in the International Review Journal 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, Richard D. Semba, Sufia Askari, Sarah Gibson, Martin W. Bloem and Klaus Kraemer from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation in London, concluded that climate change—including the combined impacts of rising temperature and carbon dioxide, rising sea levels, and climate disasters—will cause crop yields, i.e., the amount of food we can produce on the planet, to fall. The authors project that this could trigger even higher increases in food prices; last week the American Farm Bureau’s annual Thanksgiving meal survey showed an increase of 14% this year – the highest in 31 years! The result of higher food prices is the deepening of food insecurity and micronutrient deficiencies as shoppers are foced to by less expensive, and often more highly processed foods

“The [research] 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 one of the authors 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 according to The World Health Organization (WHO) more than 2 billion people, or 30 percent of the global population, suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, a major cause of death and disease; 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, said “we’re watching this disaster unfold.” The review writes that 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 resulting from melting of ice sheets and glaciers. Global ocean fisheries’ catch is predicted to decline because of ocean warming and declining oxygen, the review reports. Freshwater warming is also expected to alter ecosystems and reduce inland fisheries’ catch.

Iron and zinc are found in legumes, nuts, and grains, which the researchers  expect will see critical drops in yields. Zinc deficiency, especially in children, makes people a lot more susceptible to severe cases or dying from respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, and malaria. Iron deficiency can cause anemia, lower IQ, cognitive ability, reduced 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.  

Grocery retailers and CPG brands already understand how critical it is for good global health to understand the role of the nutrients in our foods. What this new study underscores is that climate change will be affecting our food supply’s nutrients – that we cannot simply rely on the nutritional information that is printed on the package and, quite possibly, analyzed years before the shopper reads it. Climate changes are moving quickly, and so must we. The grocery industry must have systems and technologies in place that will be monitoring our products and ingredients on a continuous basis and offer shoppers 100% correct nutritional information. 

It is time for us to assume the role and be the harbingers of climate change and its effects on the nutrients in our food supply.

Phil Lempert