Are Rising Temperatures Raising the Risk of Foodborne Illness?
Climate change is likely to impact food safety and nutrition in several ways, including decreasing nutrient content, reducing crop and livestock yields and increasing foodborne illness. Development professionals need to be aware of these climatic impacts because they will affect the ability of our food systems to feed a growing population. Those most likely to suffer from the nutritional impacts of climate change are infants and young children in the developing world, 340 million of whom suffer from micronutrient malnutrition. Development programming can mitigate these impacts by embracing the bidirectional relationship between the environment and food systems.
First, the detrimental effect of climate change on food availability and nutrient quality leads to higher rates of malnutrition, increasing susceptibility to illness. Climate change may decrease the nutrient quality of staple foods and the availability of fish and wild-sourced foods. For example, staple crops such as maize, wheat, rice and soybeans could contain less protein, vitamins and minerals. This impact will be magnified in developing countries heavily dependent on staple crops, where they’ll face lower dietary diversity and widespread micronutrient deficiencies.
In addition to negatively impacting nutrition, climate change threatens food security through decreased crop yields. Globally, temperatures are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. Temperatures are predicted to rise faster in Africa, resulting in decreased crop yields, altered migration of fish and increased frequency of harmful algal blooms. These climatic changes can negatively impact food supply, biodiversity and food safety.
Lastly, climate change can increase the risk of foodborne diseases by expanding the spread of infectious agents. Zoonoses — diseases that spread to humans from animals — are of particular concern, given that animal source foods (ASF) are rich sources of protein and essential micronutrients. However, rising temperatures and extreme weather threaten the safety of nutrient-dense ASF by increasing animals’ susceptibility to disease, including bacterial mastitis in cow’s milk. Augmented rates of foodborne zoonoses may increase the use of veterinary drugs and antibiotics, raising the risk of chemical contamination of foods.
Development professionals can take several approaches to respond to these food safety risks. Nutrition-sensitive agricultural programming must balance nutrient quality, high yields, resilience to climate change, cultural acceptability and economic viability. Investments in food safety infrastructure, surveillance and monitoring can support food systems actions that reduce environmental impact. These strategies can utilize a One Health approach that encompasses animal health, human health and the environment. Together, these approaches safeguard the environment and our food systems by reducing the burden of foodborne disease, improving the safety of nutrient-dense foods and reducing food loss and waste.