Food safety, nutrition, and distribution (Chapter 7) : The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States - A Scientific Assessment
US Global Change Research Program

Ziska, L., A. Crimmins, A. Auclair, S. DeGrasse, J.F. Garofalo, A.S. Khan, I. Loladze, A.A. Pérez de León, A. Showler, J. Thurston, and I. Walls
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This is Chapter 7 of The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment from the US Global Change Research Program. It focuses on the impacts of climate change on food safety, nutrition, and distribution in the context of human health in the United States. This chapter covers topics including the below, with findings relevant for stakeholders across the food system: 

  • How climate affects food safety
  • Impacts on pathogen prevalence
  • Impacts on chemical contaminants
  • How rising CO2 affects nutrition, including protein, micronutrients, and carbohydrate-to-protein ratio
  • How extreme events affect food distribution and access
  • Vulnerable populations
  • Emerging issues
  • Research needs

While it is often easy to overlook concerns around food safety in high-income context, this chapter is an important reminder that it should be priority now, and into the future. Exacerbated challenges seem inevitable in the face of climate change, and it will be critical that policy makers, researchers, businesses and consumers come together to tackle these increasing threats to food security.

Some of the key messages from the report include: 

  • In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses per year, with approximately 3,000 deaths.
  • Climate change, including rising temperatures and changes in weather extremes, is expected to increase the exposure of food to certain pathogens and toxins.
  • Climate change will increase human exposure to chemical contaminants in food through several pathways, including greater accumulation of mercury in seafood due to elevated sea surface temperatures; increases in extreme weather events will introduce contaminants into the food chain; and rising carbon dioxide concentrations and climate change will alter incidence and distribution of pests, parasites, and microbes leading to increases in the use of pesticides and veterinary drugs.
  • The nutritional value of agriculturally important food crops, such as wheat and rice, will decrease as rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to reduce the concentrations of protein and essential minerals in most plant species.
  • Increases in the frequency or intensity of some extreme weather events associated with climate change will limit access to safe foods.
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