How Climate Change Can Impact Your Food and Health

8 August 2011

blog

by Lotta Chan, CFJC Research Associate

The food system is an intricate and interwoven web that links agriculture with transportation, policy, poverty, water issues, public health, economics, education, research, and much more. The availability and quality of food is influenced by all of these factors, so food provides a nexus for discussion about society’s various problems.

One of the factors affecting food production and quality is climate change, which isn’t just limited to rising temperatures. In fact, temperatures in individual locations could rise, drop, or fluctuate rapidly. With climate change comes other concerns too, such as sea level rise, drought or increased rain, and higher risk for extreme weather events. These changes will have a ripple effect throughout our whole society, including on our food and health.

In California, there are several concerns regarding climate change and food, especially surrounding seafood. Increased water temperatures and other changes in ocean patterns could lead to an increase in naturally-occurring pathogens in seafood, which cause illness. The paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins, for example, are a key concern for California residents who eat seafood.

Beyond food quality issues, food access issues may also arise with climate change, as rising sea levels and air temperatures decrease agricultural productivity. Sea level rise will flood septic and sewage systems, making coastal waters too polluted with human waste for shellfish harvesting and consumption. Crop yields in California, one of the most productive agricultural states, are projected to take a serious negative hit. Not only are the fruits and vegetables that California produces part of a healthy diet, but they are also critical for local economies, as agricultural exports were worth an estimated $13.6 billion in 2008 while supporting over 150,000 jobs. Predictions are that by 2085, there will be an average net revenue loss of 9% per year for Central Valley agriculture. The tourism industry may also take a hit, as climate change impacts agricultural tourist hot spots such as wineries, which are currently close to their limit in terms of how environmental conditions are affecting their growing ability.

The impacts of climate change on our food system will not affect everyone in California equally. As productivity of crops and fisheries decrease, food prices increase, which means that healthy food will become even more inaccessible. Higher food prices would disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color within California.

Work needs to be done to protect communities from the negative impacts of climate change. An urgency surrounding food quality, productivity, and access may be just the way to turn discussion into action—before it’s too late.

For more information, read the draft report by the Public Health Adaptation Strategies working group of the California Climate Change Portal (http://www.climatechange.ca.gov/adaptation/publichealth/index.html) and “Climate Change Implications for California’s Food and Water” from the California Climate Change Center at UC Berkeley (http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Environment/EnvironmentalHealthRT/Hanemann.pdf)

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