Food Sovereignty

Pandemics & Food Poisoning: How Climate Change is Contributing to Both

Post by
Heather Seely
Pandemics & Food Poisoning: How Climate Change is Contributing to Both

Even as 2021 has brought some semblance of “normalcy,” the events of the past year and a half provide a foreshadowing of what may come. The release of the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report is yet another damning indication of climate change’s impact on this planet—and ultimately ourselves. Both pandemics and food poisoning are closely linked with our changing climate; here’s how.

Climate Change: A Crisis Associated with Other Crises

Climate change is a wicked problem (read: a complex problem with deep uncertainties and profound ethical issues)—even more so when you consider the other crises it’s often linked to.

From food and water insecurities and humanitarian crises associated with extreme weather events, to increases in terrorism and an influx in human migration, global warming has impacts that are multifaceted and far-reaching. In the decades to come, these changes will impact all areas of life—including our health.

Global Warming and Zoonotic Pandemics

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, reports started to emerge, linking the pandemic to our rapidly changing climate. According to the journal The Lancet, “the causes of both crises share commonalities, and their effects are converging.” As a zoonotic disease, Covid-19 was transmitted to humans from an animal—an occurrence scientists say will happen more frequently as warmer temperatures and ecosystem shifts will put humans in closer contact with animals.

Traditionally confined near the warmer latitudes, climatic changes will expand the range of typical zoonotic diseases. Ultimately, we can expect an increase in global exposure to zoonotic epidemics like severe acute respiratory syndromes (SARS), Lyme disease, and Ebola—to name just a few.

Human-related activities are also putting us in closer contact with animals. We’ve steadily been encroaching into wildlife habitats, making use of intensive farming practices, and trading exotic animals around the world. Coupled with an increasingly globalized and more population-dense world, the conditions are certainly ripe for a Covid-19 pandemic version 2.0.

While both the climate crisis and the Covid pandemic tend to bear down on the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized people, no country or person is immune to these changes, particularly when you consider that global warming will impact how and what we eat—as well as its safety.

Safe Food: A Thing of the Past in a Changing Climate?

As if we need another concern to add to our already-full plates (literally), when temperatures and CO2 levels rise, they’re reintroducing a threat to food that many assumed was a thing of the past: mycotoxins.

Produced by mold, mycotoxins are a result of increased stress. When mold spores are exposed to a triggering set of conditions—much like those present in a changing climate—they’re more likely to produce mycotoxins and the problems that come with them.

These fungal toxins initially entered our food supply an estimated 10,000 years ago when human cultivation and storage began. Commonly associated with grains consumed by humans and animals, mycotoxins have been responsible for health impacts like mental illness, heart failure, paralysis, convulsions, and even death.

As our climate changes and our crop diversity narrows, this could be a human threat that re-emerges. In fact, it’s already making a second appearance.

Since 2012, there has been a steep increase in many agricultural-related toxins. While some of this increase can be explained by our enhanced capabilities for detecting and studying them, increases in humidity and temperature also contribute to fungal growth, and ultimately, mycotoxin production.

Unfortunately, our changing climate is also paving the way for mycotoxins to appear in new parts of the world. With the potential to catch food producers unawares, widespread contamination is possible—particularly in areas of the world with limited resources for food testing.

Future Crises Can Pave the Way for Collaboration

Fortunately, ingenuity and innovation can help to mitigate these changes. Agroforestry systems can help to alleviate the risk of mycotoxins and we can all take simple steps to reduce our risk of contracting zoonotic diseases.

Above all, we can all come together to solve the wicked problem of climate change—and the collaborative WeAct chat app can help us amplify our efforts and pave the way for a better tomorrow.