The Impact of Climate Change on Food Safety and Implications for Development Programming
As global climate strategy discussions develop at COP27, it is cause for optimism to see food systems as a strong focus of attention. As a key aspect of food system adaptation, both FAO and WHO have highlighted food safety among key climate change impacts.
From flooded crops to toxic seafood, the global impact of climate change on the safety of food continues to grow. While these challenges are daunting, experts have begun to quantify food safety impacts, which is critical to mobilize resources to mitigate this burden.
How do climate-related phenomena result in unsafe food?
- Extreme weather events and changing seasons can result in droughts and unpredictable availability of safe water for growing and processing food safely. On the other extreme, flooding can increase the spread of chemical and microbial hazards that can contaminate crops, soil and water bodies. Low-quality water sources may become the only irrigation water available, or water may not be available altogether for hand and vegetable washing — undermining food safety best practices. Loss of habitat may lead wild animals into closer contact with food crops and food animals, increasing the risk of pathogen spillover, including foodborne disease agents.
- Power outages, often due to heat waves or extreme weather, can lead to interruption of refrigeration, water delivery and treatment and other food safety operations. Even if those services can be maintained, increased energy costs may erode the business benefits of food safety practices.
- Rising water temperatures and changes in biochemistry, combined with agricultural runoff, can lead to increased bacterial growth. Toxin-producing algal blooms and the spread of Vibrio bacteria, for example, affect the safety of fish and other seafood.
- Rising air temperature and/or humidity can impact the safety of food crops, for instance, favoring the growth of fungal plant pathogens responsible for mycotoxin contamination, at preharvest and during storage.
- Impact of climate coping practices can result in risks to food safety. Increased pesticide use to mitigate the risk of crop loss can result in higher levels of pesticide residues in food. Increased antimicrobial use in food animals, land- and aquaculture-grown, may result in spread of antimicrobial resistance in foodborne bacteria. Changes in diets due to availability or affordability of traditionally consumed foods may lead to increased consumption of less safe foods.
How can we design climate-resilient food safety programs?
Global food safety communities of practice have knowledge and tools to include climate projection and adaptation plans into climate-resilient food safety programming.
- Assess future climate scenarios for the region of interest to identify which climate phenomena are likely to be prominent or exacerbated. Specifically, differentiate between rapid versus gradual climate events.
- Assess regional changes in foodborne hazard occurrence and transport, in the environment and in food supply chains.
- Assess changes in behaviors and practices to cope with climate impacts across supply chains, food environments and consumers that can jeopardize food safety. Determine if food handling practices remain viable in a new climate scenario; for example, if access to clean water is reduced, and if alternative practices are possible and culturally acceptable.
- Assess the resilience of the food system with a food safety lens. For example, determine if there are redundant food production or water source options if one becomes contaminated. Enabling environments and strong links to allied systems, such as water, safety, and hygiene, and healthcare, are also key to food safety resilience.
These steps can support the design of adaptation plans and help guide their potential success. While data are often resource-intensive to gather, many assessment and decision-support tools already exist. The I-CAN platform, launched at COP27, seeks to strengthen connections and information sharing across food systems, thus increasing their ability to deliver safe and nutritious food to all, as nations adapt to a changing climate.
Programs like EatSafe: Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food (EatSafe) are working to improve food safety in traditional markets, with attention to food safety solutions that are sustainable and appropriate within a changing climate. Traditional markets and informal supply chains serving the most vulnerable populations may be at a disproportionate risk of climate impacts. At the same time, traditional markets are an example of food environments that have proven resilient for a long time. Leveraging and improving such time-tested solutions can provide a roadmap to the future.
For more information, visit EatSafe’s Activity Page on Agrilinks.
This blog was made possible through support provided by Feed The Future through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), under the terms of Agreement #7200AA19CA00010. The opinions expressed herein are those of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.