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Nutrition & Climate Change in the SDG-era

Watch Dr. Alan Dangour discuss the impact of the global food system on maternal, newborn and child health.
ALAN DANGOUR: Well, the world is changing. And it’s changing fast in many ways. And the major pressure that really is going to have a tremendous impact on maternal, newborn, and child health is the changing ability of the agricultural system to produce nutritious and healthy diets. And as the world changes, it’s getting warmer. There are changes in the ozone levels. There are changes in pollinator numbers. And all of these factors– and changing of water availability– are going to have a tremendous impact on the ability of the agricultural system to deliver the right foods to the right people. And so that’s going to have an impact on nutrition.
And of course, nutrition is essential for health, especially in– well, everyone, but especially in infants and young children. And then as we move into adults, of course essential– nutrition is essential for prevention of non-communicable diseases. So the changing environment, the changing ability of agriculture to deliver the foods that people need for health, is going to have a– is going to be a major pressure on the future, in the future. And another major pressure, of course, is the population shifts into cities. And as people move into cities, they change their behaviours, they change their habits, their access to food changes, their access to the types of foods changes. Often their choice– food choices are constrained by what’s available.
And it’s conditioned by advertisements and the food industry. And that’s going to also have a tremendous impact on health. So those are the two major changes that are the only very much on the horizon and are potentially going to have significant impacts on maternal, newborn, and child health. Well, this is a major issue now and a real concern among many people working on food systems, and nutrition, and international global health. We are aware that as the environment changes so yields of certain crops changes. And there’s very good evidence on the main crops, the staple crops– rice, wheat.
And we know that over the next 30, 40, 50 years there will be substantial declines in the yields of crops, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where many of the poorest people live, of course, and where the nutritional problems are the starkest. So in those countries, the availability of the staple crops that produce– that deliver the majority of dietary energy in diets is potentially going to decline. In other parts of the world– in the northern latitudes– the production of these crops is going to increase. And so there will be a real issue about the north yet again having more and the south having less.
There are going to be issues around trade, around governance, around equity that are going to have substantial implications on the ability of the global food system to feed people adequately. And that’s just the cereals. What we know much less about, for example, are the impacts of environmental stressors on fruit and vegetable production and yields. And we’re doing some systematic reviews at the moment which are looking at exactly at that. What is the evidence that environmental stress is going to change the yields and the quality– the nutritional quality– of fruits and vegetables that are so essential for delivering vitamins and minerals in young children but also for the prevention of non-communicable diseases in adults? So there are some significant changes underway.
And those changes are going to affect the availability of food. And not only the availability– whether it’s there or not in the markets– but access. Food prices are going to change. And those food prices are going to change– typically, for the poorest, those changes are going to have a dramatic impact, a much more substantial impact on consumption than in richer countries. If you’re rich, you can afford to spend a bit more on fruits and vegetables, for example.
But in poorer countries, that might change– completely change– your diets, change our consumption habits, make you eat a much more monotonous diet, or lead to frank food insecurity where there’s just insufficient food available, you can’t afford to buy the food that you need. So these are substantial changes that are underway in the food system at the moment and could have a tremendous impact on nutritional and health, especially in young children. Water availability is another issue of significant concern. So we’re aware that there are going to be– the models suggest there’ll be enormous changes in precipitation– so rainfall– over the next 30, 40 years.
And again, there will be this change– this shift from rainfall patterns– traditional rainfall patterns– there’s going to be more– to one where there’s going to be more in the northern latitudes and less in those countries where, again, there are the more poor people. So sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia there’s going to be changes. There’s also going to be changes in extreme weather events– so more flooding, for example, is going to become much more common. And so there’s precipitation, but there’s also changes in groundwater. And so that’s the availability of water when it’s not raining through aquifers or in rivers.
And we do some work at the moment in India to look at the consequences of the changing availability of groundwater on dietary patterns. And it’s showing really that over the next 20, 30 years when groundwater levels are likely to decline in India– that’s what the models are telling us– it’s going to have an impact on the ability of India to produce the diets that their current– that people are currently eating. And this is going to mean that people are going to shift their– change their diets. And this again could have impacts– we estimate will have significant impacts– on population health as people shift away from their traditional diets to diets which are produced using other foods with other water requirements.
So as the availability of water changes, there’s again potentially significant impacts, and sometimes unthought-through. These things are not well examined and not well discovered. And much more thought needs to be put into these issues. And the other thing, of course– as the availability of groundwater declines, so there’s a real question about where people get their water, their water for drinking, their water for cooking, and their water for cleaning or whatever. And that– typically, that task falls to women. Unless there’s piped water to the house, women often are the ones– women and children are often the ones who walk long distances to collect water. And that’s likely to increase.
So not only is there going to be a scarcity of water, but the quality of that water may also decline. And we know that in certain parts of the world– in Bangladesh, for example– as you have to go deeper to get your water or as you’re on a more coastal plains, then the water becomes more saline or contains contaminants which are harmful to health. So there are real issues about water availability which are– also have direct impact on women’s and children’s health, which are critical and need much more exploration. Well, there are some very good solutions. For example, in food technology there is a movement now in cultured meat. So that’s the production of meat in laboratories.
Now it sounds strange, it sounds like something you might not want to do, but it might well be a critical solution. Because the production of livestock, the production of animal-sourced food is a major contributor to environmental change. And so a solution, if people want to continue eating meat, is that maybe we need to produce meat in different ways. And the laboratory is a way through which meat can now be produced. A second example is selective breeding or genetically modified organisms, plants which are selected to grow in a different way. A very good example is a type of rice.
It’s this selectively bred rice which is called scuba rice, which has the advantage of being– it can survive perfectly well having been submerged for two to three weeks under water. So once it’s got to relative maturity, and if there’s a flash flood, for example, which lasts a couple of weeks, or a flood or a period of extensive rainfall which lasts for a couple of weeks, the yield from that rice is not lost. So that’s an example of agricultural breeding, crop breeding, which is clearly going to be a potential tool in the armoury.
And a final thing, of course, which is really, really important is that we need to change the way we live, change our behaviour, change our practises, so that we’re less– so that our diets are less resource intensive, so we think more about the foods we’re eating, so that we engage more with our dietary practises, and so that we ourselves form part of the solution to these big problems.

In this step Professor Alan Dangour discusses the changing ability of the agricultural system to produce nutritious foods for women and children in developing countries.

He discusses the impact of nutrition on maternal, newborn and child health and future challenges involving trade, governance and equity on the global food system.

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Improving the Health of Women, Children and Adolescents: from Evidence to Action

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