The first-ever assessment of how global warming might affect the quality of people’s diet – and subsequently their health – has come to a disturbing conclusion: By 2050, climate change could cause over half a million deaths due to poor diet. Reduced crop productivity, due to either an increase in severity of droughts or floods, for example, would have an impact on the composition of diets, which in turn would affect millions of people’s bodyweight.
“Much research has looked at food security, but little has focused on the wider health effects of agricultural production,” explains Dr. Marco Springmann, who co-authored the paper published in The Lancet, in a statement. “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.”
The results show that even a slight reduction in the amount of food, and thus calorific intake of a person, could seriously impact people’s health. For example, the paper shows that if we continue to pump out greenhouse gases and fail to address climate change, the shift in food production could lead to an average reduction of food availability per person of 3.2 percent, which equates to 99 fewer calories per day. In addition, there could be a 4 percent reduction in fruit and vegetable intake. Just small changes in diet can quickly add up, and this, say the researchers, could be enough to kill 529,000 extra people by 2050.
The regions they predict to be hardest hit will be low- and middle-income countries, with China and India accounting for almost three-quarters of climate-related deaths due to these changes in dietary composition. They note that there might be some positive effects, due mainly to a reduction in the number of people with obesity, but are quick to point out that these are more than offset by the increase in the number of people who will become underweight and equally at risk.
“Climate change is likely to have a substantial negative impact on future mortality, even under optimistic scenarios,” says Dr. Springmann. “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.”
On the flip side, facing climate change head-on and reducing carbon emissions while also educating people could have the opposite effect, reducing the number of deaths per year. If we move into a future without global warming, and an increase in food availability and consumption, it could prevent an estimated 1.9 million deaths annually.