A study launched last week in the Lancet has found that as many as 529,000 people may die as a result of changes in diet, weight, and health due to climate change impacts on food production. This study is further evidence that the impacts of climate change are real, they are dire, and the need to act is urgent.
Much of the research on climate change and agriculture to date has examined the impacts of climate change on food production: how much food will be available. What has not been adequately explored – and what this study is a first and critical step forward in examining – is how those climate-induced impacts on food production will in turn affect nutrition and health.
It begins to ask what kind of food will be available, what people will consume, and what influence that will have.
The study is a reflection of the myriad and complex ways in which climate change will impact hunger and malnutrition (including lack of food, vitamins and minerals, as well as obesity). In its 2014 assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that climate change will impact all aspects of food security.
Food security means food is available, but it also includes different people’s access to food, how food is used, and the stability of food supplies and prices.
It is not enough to have “more food” to end hunger and malnutrition in the face of climate change. In examining how much food is available, it is critical to look at what kind of food is available.
A diverse diet is critical for health. Malnutrition in pregnant women leads to poor health and nutritional status in newborns. Malnutrition in young children can permanently impair their development, negatively impacting their learning and earning potential and creating a vicious intergenerational cycle of poverty. Nutrition matters.
This latest study does dig into climate change impacts on different kinds of foods, rather than focusing on impacts on staple crops. However, the authors recognize that more research in this regard is needed and that among factors not included in their study is the effect of climate change on the nutritional value of foods.
Early research in this area has shown that climate change may have negative consequences on the protein and nutrient content of grains and legumes. More research here is also vital.
ACCESS TO GOOD FOOD
Yet even “more nutritious food” will not be enough. We must also ask who has access to food. Not everyone can afford enough food – or nutritious food. And access isn’t only about affordability. Social factors – gender, social group – also matter.
The Lancet commentary acknowledges that national-level data can mask social or economic variations within a country. We know from our work at CARE that variations exist not only within countries but within communities and even within households. In too many poor households around the world, women are often the last to eat, after men and children.
So the impact of climate change on food isn’t just a matter of calories. It’s a question of nutrition – the kinds of food available and consumed; and it’s about economic and social equality – ensuring everyone has equal access to enough nutritious food.
These complex dynamics may be harder to measure but are arguably mission-critical for identifying solutions to end hunger and malnutrition in the face of climate change. Simply producing more food will not solve the crisis.
A final point: while the study looks at projections that seem decades away, and researchers flag the value of looking even further into the future, we must act now. We already live in a world with almost 800 million chronically hungry people and over 160 million children whose development has been permanently impaired by malnutrition.
Second, we need to build health and food systems that support everyone’s ability to access enough nutritious food and quality health services.
And lastly, we cannot lose sight of the fundamental challenge: without urgent, ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot meet the Paris Agreement goal to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and we will not solve the climate crisis nor end hunger and malnutrition.
This new study sheds more light on the impacts of climate change around the world. They are real and everywhere. They may differ among regions and within countries, communities and households.
But the fact remains: no country is immune from the environmental, social and health ripple effects of climate change. The study raises a red flag for the kind of world in which we can expect to live – a fundamentally altered world. That red flag must be a clarion call to act now.
Tonya Rawe is a senior advisor for policy and research on food and nutrition security with CARE International.