Climate change increases risk of food-borne illness

As climate change continues to warm our planet, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that governments around the world must take increased precaution to ensure food safety–something that has not received enough political attention. U.N. agencies and the African Union recently met in Ethiopia at an international food safety conference and made the following statement:

With an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, unsafe food is a threat to human health and economies globally. Foodborne diseases in low- and middle-income countries costs at least $100 billion a year, with this cost exceeding $500 million for 28 countries, according to a recent World Bank study. Ongoing changes in climate, global food production and supply systems affect consumers, industry and the planet itself: food safety systems need to keep pace with these changes. The burden of unsafe food disproportionally affects vulnerable and marginalized people and poses sustainability and development challenges.

From Reuter’s reporting: Cristina Tirado-von der Pahlen, director of international climate initiatives at California’s Loyola Marymount University, told the conference that “It is known that temperature increase as a result of greenhouse gas emissions may increase food contamination and food-borne diseases.” But her research found that only three countries mentioned food safety in their national action plans for adapting to climate change, prepared under U.N. negotiations. Environmentalists have often warned that the world’s crop production system is vulnerable to contamination because of excessive use of pesticides and non-organic agro-chemicals. And when it comes to climate change, the global food system is responsible for 20 to 30 percent of planet-warming emissions, sparking calls for plant-based diets and new farming methods.

Furthermore what’s really gross is that warming global temperatures will increase fly populations which will spread disease. Additionally, another key food safety concern is that climate change could lead to a hike in mycotoxins, compounds produced by fungi that can cause acute effects, including death, as well as chronic illnesses such as cancer from long-term exposure.

Why This Matters: Climate change will not affect all countries and all food systems equally. As the WHO explained, some regions are projected to have an increase in food production; however, generally, the projected climate change is foreseen to have a negative impact on food security, especially in developing countries. The effects of climate change on food security and consequently nutrition are closely linked to effects on food safety and public health and must be considered together. This goes to show that climate change doesn’t just mean hotter summers, stronger hurricanes and sea level rise, it will (and already has started to) affect just about every aspect of our lives but especially for people who already live at the margins of economic stability.

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