Concerns about climate change have caused researchers to warn that rising global temperatures will reduce crop yields and create food insecurity, the inability to get enough calories to survive. Now, scholars from the United Kingdom and the United States have revealed another possible result: an increase in deaths not just from hunger, but from chronic diseases that would be made worse as diets change.
Writing in the medical journal The Lancet, the researchers from Oxford University and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. predict that by 2050, more than a half-million people will die not just because not enough food will be available, but because the composition of their diets will change, losing nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, and meats. But taking international action to reduce climate change, they say, could eliminate up to three-fourths of those deaths.
“The traditional interest in the interaction between climate change and agriculture has really been on calorie availability,” explains Marco Springmann, PhD, the paper’s first author, who is a research fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. “That is what most people understand when you say food security. But if you look at the health inpacts of food consumption, then you see that it is the composition of diets that leads to the most health impacts. Most deaths and also most disability-adjusted life years are already attributed to imbalanced diets; that is what kills people in most areas of the world. We wanted to shine a light on those implications.” (For more, see Why Micronutrient Deficiency Is a Macro-Problem.)
The researchers used a long-standing computer model of agricultural productivity, the International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade, along with other models that predict changes in temperature and precipitation for different climate-change scenarios, to estimate possible effects on the crops and foods that end up on our plates.
Without climate change, they say, existing trends would improve global food access and level out inequality: By 2050, people would have access to an average 289 more calories per day, and to an average 36 grams of fruits and vegetables and four grams more meat daily. But climate change would reverse that trend, taking away available food and especially nutritious food.