Environmental ‘stresses’, such as climate change, rainfall and loss of pollinators, are predicted to have major impacts on agriculture and food production over the coming decades. But the combined effects of these changes on food and nutrition security - how much food there will be, where, when and at what price - are still unknown.
To establish how environmental changes might impact the food in our shops and on our plates, a group of researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Harvard University, and University of Reading, will begin a two-year project to understand and describe the web of connections that link environment and agriculture with food availability, affordability and quality.
The two-stage study will be the first to address the impact of multiple environmental stresses and to take account of other influential factors such as global food markets, underlying trends in population health and demographic factors such as population growth and urbanization.
In the first stage, the group will consider how multiple environmental stresses might change the availability of different types of food for a variety of people and regions. While previous studies have focused on single paths of cause and effect - for example the impact of increased temperature on production of cereal crops in sub-Saharan Africa - the new study will combine a range of possible scenarios into a single model.
The resulting model will then be used to predict the real term impacts of environmental change on household food bills, diet and health in three example countries: UK, Mexico and Ethiopia. Using existing data on farming, food prices, diet and health, researchers will estimate the type, price and amount of food available in these countries and the consequences this may have on health and nutrition in different parts of the population.
For instance in countries like the UK where people buy, rather than grow, the majority of their food, a rise in the price of fresh fruit and vegetables may result in low-income households relying more heavily on cheap staple foods such as cereals, which could increase their risk of obesity. Richer households might not be affected in this way - contributing to increased health inequalities in the UK.
The £415,000 project will be funded by the Wellcome Trust as part of the Sustaining Health initiative, a global funding scheme to seed research into the impact of a changing world on the future of human health.
Dr Alan Dangour, Reader in Food and Nutrition for Global Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Principal Investigator for the project, said: “There is potential for environmental stresses to have a tremendous impact on food and nutrition security in the UK, and worldwide. As we saw in 2008 when rising food prices resulted in riots around the globe, food insecurity also has major implications for economic and political stability. Yet at the moment there is a real lack of evidence for what those impacts will be.
“This research will give us a much clearer understanding of how environmental stresses are intricately linked with the availability of nutritious food globally to enable governments support the health needs of their population. By alerting policy makers to the people in society who are most vulnerable, we hope that this study will provide the necessary grounding to prevent, or prepare for, what’s on the horizon.”
Dr Saskia Heijnen, Research Analyst at the Wellcome Trust, added: "Rising demand for food, scarcity of fresh water and the threat of climate change are just some of the challenges that need to be addressed if we are to healthily sustain our growing population. We need to rethink how we manage our resources, but to achieve this we first need to understand the big picture factors that influence nutrition security and how these interact to influence the diet and health of individuals in different geographies. Only then will we be able to devise policy solutions that address the needs of everyone in our society and ensure that more people have the opportunity to live a long and healthy life.”