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Your Environment. Your Health.

Foodborne Diseases and Nutrition

Climate and Human Health

Foodborne Diseases and Nutrition

Health Impacts of Climate Change

Nutritious food is a basic necessity of life, and failure to obtain sufficient calories, macronutrients (fats, proteins, carbohydrates), and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) can result in illness and death. While malnutrition and hunger are typically problems in the developing world, the United States and other developed countries still have significant populations affected by insufficient food resources and under-nutrition. Food can also be a source of foodborne illnesses, resulting from eating spoiled food or food contaminated with microbes, chemical residues or toxic substances. The potential effects of climate change on foodborne illness, nutrition, and security are mostly indirect, but on a global scale, can result in large numbers of populations affected.

Tractor spraying crops

Health Impacts

  • Extreme weather events and changes in temperature and precipitation can damage or destroy crops and interrupt the transportation and delivery of food
  • Changes in agricultural ranges, practices and changing environmental conditions can reduce the availability and nutritional content of food supplies.  For example, an increase in the use of pesticides leads to a decrease in nutritional content of food
  • Increased drought in some areas encourages crop pests such as aphids, locusts, and whiteflies, as well as the spread of the mold that produces aflatoxin, which may contribute to the development of liver disease in people who eat contaminated corn or nuts
  • Spread of agricultural pests and weeds may lead to an increased use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides
  • Extreme weather events, such as flooding, drought, and wildfires can contaminate crops and fisheries with metals, chemicals, and toxicants released into the environment
  • Increased temperatures and impacts on other environmental parameters (e.g., ocean acidification) can affect potential contaminant-induced immune suppression and can lead to more virulent strains of existing pathogens and changes in their distribution or emergence of new pathogens. For instance, rising sea surface temperatures can result in an increase in many Vibrio bacteria species, which can cause seafood-borne diseases, such as cholera.

Mitigation and Adaptation

  • Diversification of stable crops for biofuel feedstock
  • Increase in the need for agricultural chemicals due to increases in pests and pest habitats
  • Planning for maintenance of food supply infrastructure and transportation during extreme weather events

Research Needs

  • Projecting impacts of climate change including increases in CO2, temperature, drought, floods, and other extreme weather events and changes in growing seasons on food production, availability, contamination, and nutritional value.
  • Understanding and predicting potential ecosystem changes from climate change that may establish new foodborne pathogens, chemical contaminants, or biotoxins, as well as new pathways for human exposure.
  • Understanding of changes in nutritional status associated with climate change that may increase individual susceptibility to the adverse health impacts of other environmental exposures such as chemicals and heavy metals.
  • Understanding the effect of ocean acidification from climate change-related increases in air pollution on seafood quality and availability.
  • Developing and implementing models linking climate change and other environmental data to crops and seafood to improve prediction and risk assessment.

For more information, please visit the chapter on Foodborne Diseases and Nutrition in A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change (Full Report) (4MB).

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