Vanessa White-Barrow | Climate change impacts on food security and nutrition | In Focus


Climate change has become a phenomenon of global concern, especially as we have been continuously witnessing its destructive impacts throughout history. According to the United Nations, human activities have been the main drivers of climate change since the 1800s. Though some people regard climate change as something that will happen in the future or as being seasonal, it is an ongoing process. Global ecosystems and communities are currently affected.

Climate change on different societal sectors are quite interrelated. Drought can harm food production and human health. Flooding can lead to disease spread and damage to ecosystems and infrastructure. Human health issues can increase mortality, affect food availability, and limit worker productivity. Climate change impacts are seen throughout every aspect of the world we live in. As we continue to experience climate-induced catastrophes, it is imperative that we focus our attention on the calamitous effects that it can have on the future health and well-being of global populations, through food and nutrition-related factors.

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Since the last staging of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in October-November 2021 (COP26), we have also come to witness a global call for action and numerous debates on the need for strategies to help tackle and minimise the issue. Jamaica’s participation at the COP26 meeting in October-November 2021 has highlighted the country’s goal of becoming part of a global network of net-zero, climate-resilient developing countries by year 2050 in response to climate change. This goal has also been seen to correlate with the 30 X 30 goal developed in 2019, which is an international target that aggregates the protected areas of participating nations.

Through these goals, the Jamaican Government, with the support of international project teams, would commit to ambitious strategies that protect our land and seas. This is especially critical as Jamaica heavily relies on its cultural and economic services provided by both the terrestrial and marine ecosystems. These goals combined have the potential to benefit Jamaica by not only improving the local economy, but also through the restoration of depleted fishing grounds and fish populations, safeguarding carbon stored in vegetation and soils, and increasing food security.

AGRICULTURE MOST AFFECTED

While we acknowledge that climate change is indeed real and happening right before our eyes, it is crucial that we also appreciate that the climate is intrinsically linked with agriculture, food, and nutrition. Should the change in our regional and global climate patterns continue to drastically rise, it is expected that the Caribbean will experience disturbances in adherence to dietary guidelines, household food security, food choices, and food safety, a point that has also been highlighted by the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI).

A 2016 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in conjunction with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI) highlighted that climate change impacts in Latin America and the Caribbean will be considerable. This is attributed to the region’s economic dependence on agriculture, the low adaptive capacity of its population, and the geographical location of some countries.

Due to global warming, we have been experiencing extreme and unpredictable weather conditions that are resulting in natural disasters, a reduction in the yields of major crops across the region, and higher levels of carbon dioxide, which dilutes the nutritional value of crops. Consequently, predicted increases in extreme weather events are likely to have negative impacts on food availability, often rousing price surges or gouging on limited products. Increases in food prices are then likely to lead to Caribbean consumers choosing lower-cost food.

CLIMATE CHANGE WILL COST US

Research confirms that warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate from the land and oceans, and changes in the size and frequency of heavy precipitation events may, in turn, affect the size and frequency of flooding. Flooding is a primary mechanism for pathogen and chemical transport on to agricultural land and may increase food contamination. Hence, with the floods imposed by climate change, carrying these deadly toxins on to agricultural land then food is no longer safe for consumption, which may lead to undernutrition.

While there is no evidence confirming climate change as the cause, in late January into early February, sections of northern Jamaica experienced torrential rains. Current Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Pearnel Charles Jr shared that Jamaica’s agricultural sector was adversely affected by the floods, resulting in crop and livestock losses, damage to road infrastructure, and loss of farmlands due to erosion and landslides. A total of 551 farmers lost an estimated J$76,815,000, with the damage to crops accounting for J$74,884,600 and over J$ 1.9 million accounting for livestock losses, with 55 farmers affected. Consequently, the Government, in conjunction with municipal corporations and other agencies, have been pooling efforts to devise informed strategies to help farmers and residents recover.

Adding to the flooding woes, Jamaican consumers have been grappling with a surge in food prices, which may be attributed to decreased food availability due to the floods. When yields and livestock productivity decrease, food prices are often expected to increase, making food access difficult and may result in poor food choices. Imagine the most vulnerable of our society spending much of what they already don’t have on food alone.

Further, the state of nutrition and overall health within the Caribbean is at risk! Obesity is one of the leading causes of poor health within the region. Despite no obvious connection, climate change is a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic. Dietary guidelines aimed at the prevention/management of weight gain and chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases emphasise the consumption of whole foods – namely fruits, vegetables, legumes (peas, beans, nuts, seeds); whole grains; lean proteins such as fish; and plant-based oils in appropriate amounts based on the individual’s needs. The guidelines also encourage hydrating with potable water as often as possible and limiting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods.

INDIRECT IMPACTS

Frequent natural disasters coupled with the current geopolitical situation in Europe have indirect impacts on the health and nutrition landscape of Jamaican and Caribbean nationals and can potentially reduce the available supply of plant-based foods, fish, and potable water. Of particular concern is the power of both to cause severe disruptions to the food-supply chain, causing food shortages due to spikes in fertiliser prices, and a halt in global export of staple food commodities, leading to a surge in food prices. Even worse is that highly energy-dense foods, specifically, ultra-processed food products, are often cheaper than their healthier counterparts and less affected by price surges. This then drives our local populations, especially the most vulnerable and displaced, to choose these cheaper ultra-processed products and fast foods that are often laden with egregious amounts of salt, unhealthy fats, and added sugars. This may diminish the nutritional quality of dietary intakes, lower the nutritional status of some persons, and increase the risk of obesity across the Caribbean.

The compounding effects of climate change are leading to many changes in our food and nutrition landscape. Many countries are not yet prepared to face climate-related threats, especially regarding food and nutrition, and some groups are more vulnerable to these threats than others. Our response needs to be multipronged. Governments and regulatory agencies need to align public policy and investments that favour clean, renewable energy that weans away from heavily polluting industries to ensure safe, quality, and nutritious foods for Jamaica. With the right policies and investments towards the Jamaican food and agricultural sector, we have the opportunity to realise our vision of healthy people in a healthy place on a healthy planet.

– Dr Vanessa White-Barrow is the head of School of Allied Health and wellness/nutritionist, College of Health Sciences, University of Technology, Jamaica. Send feedback to ghapjm@gmail.com



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