UK scientists have found that the impact of climate change on future food production will have devastating effects, especially in low income countries.
Nicola McCaskill

3 Mar 2016 - 10:46 AM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2016 - 4:22 PM

New research suggests climate change could kill more than 500,000 adults worldwide in 2050, due to changes in diets and bodyweight resulting from reduced crop production.

The study, published today in The Lancet, is the first of its kind to model and assess the impact of climate change on diet composition and bodyweight. 

The results include detailed estimates for additional deaths in 155 countries in 2050, and present strong evidence that climate change could have damaging consequences for food production and health worldwide.

“Much research has looked at food security, but little has focused on the wider health effects of agricultural production,” says lead author, population health researcher Dr Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford.

“Changes in food availability and intake also affect dietary and weight-related risk factors such as low fruit and vegetable intake, high red meat consumption, and high bodyweight.”

“These all increase the incidence of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer, as well as death from those diseases,” Springmann explains, adding that the results show – even modest reductions in the availability of food per person could lead to major health consequences. 

The authors say cutting emissions could lead to substantial health benefits, and could drop the number of climate related deaths by up to 71% depending on the strength of the intervention.

A hungry world

The team created a detailed agricultural modelling network with data on emission trajectories, socioeconomic pathways, and possible climate responses. Their calculations determined the effects on global food trade, consumption and production for 2050.

According to the group’s research, low- and middle- income countries are likely to be worst affected, particularly those in the Western Pacific region and Southeast Asia. Almost three-quarters of all climate-related deaths are expected to occur in China and India (248,000 and 136,000 mortalities, respectively).

The model found that reductions in fruit and vegetable intake alone could lead to 534,000 climate-related deaths, an impact which would likely be felt in high-income countries as well.

This impact outweighed the benefits of a reduced red meat intake, and while fewer people will die of obesity-related deaths in 2050, undernourishment will continue to be a bigger problem.

Feeding Australia

The group ranked Australia 102 out of 155 countries, estimating we will fare comparatively well when it comes to facing up to the food supply challenges climate change will bring. The study projects we will suffer 5.74 additional deaths per million people in 2050.

Associate Professor Daniel Rodriguez, an expert on productive and resilient farming systems, says it is important to consider these figures in context.

“During the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, 173 people died in a single day,” he notes. “The heat wave that hit Western Europe in 2003 killed more than 35,000 people in just two weeks. So even though it is interesting, heat stress is likely to be the main killer of Australians as climate change signals increase.”

However, Rodriguez adds that Australia should use its competitive advantages to help globally, building resilient food systems in the developing world.

Associate Professor of Public Health at ACU Shawn Somerset says the future of food distribution is important to consider, to protect groups within our society more susceptible to food insecurity.

“In an increasingly globalised food system, these inequalities no longer can be expected to be contained within our national boundaries,” he says, explaining that expanding markets in our food export destination countries will compete for food with vulnerable groups within Australia. 

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