It seems as if freak weather, melting ice caps and rising water levels are not the only things we should be concerned about when it comes to climate change. According to four scientists speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, global warming will lead to “increased levels of contamination of food, from chemicals and pesticides to crop pests and fungal pathogens, as well as faster spreading of diseases such as cholera and shellfish poisoning.”
Photo by Mike Chino for Inhabitat
The findings show that not only will climate change lead to food shortages and increase food prices, but force the population to make changes in their diets as some foods become less available or more dangerous – potentially giving way to civil unrest. Speaking at the summit, Sandra Hoffman of the Department of Agriculture said that the links between climate change and food safety are only now just being understood and the science is not clear.
A prime example of their argument was that of salmonella. Currently, there are 38.4 million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. every year. Salmonella is the leading cause of food related death. Scientists now believe that as the ambient temperature in an area rises above six degrees Celsius — or 43 degrees Fahrenheit — the chance of food-borne salmonella poisoning increases by a considerable 12 percent.
According to Ewen C. Todd, of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, climate change has already been responsible for food poisoning cases. He highlighted an incident in 2006 when lettuce grown in Spain and shipped to Finland caused 56 cases of salmonella poisoning. The cause was traced to farmers using untreated water for irrigation, but they had been forced to do so as a drought likely related to climate change that had restricted their access to clean water.
Ray Knighton of the USDA, said changing climate also affects food production. Drought can cause a loss in plant vigor, making plants more susceptible to disease. Meanwhile floods and heavy rains favor the growth of fungal pathogens on leaves, and many disease-causing organisms can spread via changing wind currents. Many scientists believe climate change is producing more severe storms and these in turn help spread diseases.
“Greenhouse gasses and atmospheric pollutants change plant structure and the ability of the plant to defend itself against pathogens,” he said. One classic example is Asian soybean rust, spores that cause gold speckles on the light green leaves and eventually kill the plant. The spores have spread from Asia to Africa then to South America and now the United States. It is believed they travelled on the winds of hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico.
All of this has massive implications for how food-borne diseases are monitored and the need for a sensitive network for tracking pathogens, he said.
“There is significant uncertainty about all of this,” Hoffman admitted. “We don’t know what direction those cumulative effects will be.” That uncertainty, she said, will make difficult to design an effective adaptation policy.
Merely speculative concerns, or the inevitable result of a constantly changing ecosystem? Either way, it is (hopefully not contaminated) food for thought.
Lead image © The Green Party