Reliable health

Nutritional ecology framework could help “avoid a complete biodiversity crisis”

21 Jun 2023 — Climate change challenges “all aspects of human existence” and increased temperatures put extra pressure on resilient food systems while simultaneously threatening the environment and human health. US-based researchers have developed a “Nutritional Ecology” framework that shows humans as complex biological systems and how nutrition, food systems, climate and the environment are all connected. 

The study says climate and environmental challenges and their relationship with food systems are critical global health challenges. However, this challenge also presents an opportunity to move science forward “in a way that both preserves the planet and humankind.”

Nutrition Insight speaks with England-based environmental scientists about how climate change threatens humans through nutrition and food insecurity.

“Climate change will affect crop production profoundly, and we need to concentrate on being able to produce sufficient nutritious food on less land so that we can both feed people and avoid a complete biodiversity crisis,” says Dr. Tilly Collins, senior fellow and deputy director at the Center for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, England.

“We need to act coherently so that earth’s systems can continue to provide for humanity,” she adds.

Hand holding soil to plant vegetablesFood and nutrition insecurity can have negative impacts on social and economic systems.Nutritional Ecology
The study, published in Nutrients, argues that a changing global environment requires adjusted efforts to support a growing and diverse population. 

“We live in a complex global health context that includes pre-existing malnutrition intertwined with pandemics, food-borne diseases and the growing epidemics of non-communicable diseases. This global health context also includes the expanding prevalence of the ‘multiple burdens’ of malnutrition,” reads the study.

Humans are described as complex biological systems interacting with internal and external environments. The former refers to biology, nutrition, genetics and health and the latter to social, behavioral, cultural and physical backgrounds – such as access to food.

Nutrition and food insecurity come from disruptions in access to quality or quantity of food, and in most cases, both. Struggles in pre-harvesting practices, food production, post-harvest storage, processing, marketing and retail all play a role in one’s access to nutritious food. 

“Rising temperatures, especially moments of heatwave, have many effects. Crops can be stunted, and yield can fall rapidly, so both local nutrition and the income from crop sales which provides access to other foods, suffer. This intensifies resource competition between people (often groups of people) and can trigger local conflict, which drives migrations as people seek better and more reliable conditions,” Collins explains.

“The result of these insecurities [food and nutrition] can often lead to a vicious cycle of hunger, poor nutrition, poor health, decreased functional capacity of affected populations and negative impacts on social and economic systems,” reads the study.

The study stresses that these challenges may also become acute or chronic from macroeconomic events, as nutrition is often brought on or worsened by social or economic turmoil, geopolitical conflicts, pandemic disease, or climate change-related disasters.

Hot temperatures lurk
Last year at the COP27 in Egypt, representatives from various governmental agencies came together for a session on progressing toward reaching the Paris Agreement targets. Meanwhile, the UN stressed that nutrition insecurity will be further exacerbated if climate change goals are unmet.

“People are stressed by heatwave conditions. Very hot temperatures can exacerbate underlying health conditions – there are always mortality peaks associated with heatwaves. Access to affordable electricity for cooling can also factor in. So, rising temperatures threaten human nutrition and health,” Collins underscores.Children and parent walking in warm country carrying water and foodRising temperatures threaten human nutrition and health, says Collins.

She further details that a direct link has been seen between increased temperatures and malnutrition in Africa. 

“It is not just increased heat which worsens drought and impacts yield, but changing weather patterns that can influence the reliability and predictability of rainfall, greater droughts and floods. In the global north, malnutrition tends to be associated with food choices rather than access per se, driven by all sorts of factors.” 

June has been declared the hottest June on record in some parts of the world, and ongoing wildfires in Canada further challenge the food system.

Dr. Paulo Ceppi, a lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, England, tells us that seasonal forecast models are pointing toward a “higher than average” risk of a warm summer in Western Europe. 

“This is a general tendency only, as it is impossible to predict seasonal temperatures in advance accurately, so it remains possible that we will experience some colder and wetter periods,” Ceppi notes.

By Beatrice Wihlander

This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst’s sister website, NutritionInsight.

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