Access to fresh fruit, vegetables and many other foods could be dramatically limited due to climate change by 2050, according to a new report published in the medical journal the Lancet.
In the report, scientists from the U.S. and the U.K. predict a lack of access to nutritious foods, which could see severe decline in public health — and, in some cases, deaths.
"What we found was that climate change can be expected to lead to about half a million additional deaths worldwide in 2050, due to changes to diets and body weight," said Marco Springmann, one of the report's authors. He's a researcher in the department of population health at the University of Oxford.
Springmann says we already know that unbalanced diets are a leading risk factor for death globally, so he designed a study to measure the real impact, using what's called a modelling study.
He and his colleagues worked from existing data on climate changes around the world and how crops will react to those changes.
They then took that data and plugged it into a global agriculture economics model to gain insight into how markets and farmers react to changes in crop output.
"For example, some farmers might decide to plant larger areas," he said. "In addition, prices will change — they'll increase if production decreases. And trade will change the whole picture as well."
Heart disease, cancer may rise
The result is unique information on food consumption patterns around the world, and a look at population health in the year 2050.
Springmann says there will be a steep decline in fruit and vegetable consumption, with Asia hit hardest. Heart disease, stroke and cancer will rise, he says, because those diseases are closely correlated to fruit and vegetable consumption.
Short of halting, or at least dramatically limiting climate change, the report highlights some of the ways we ought to be adapting to future challenges.
That might mean learning how to grow more food on existing cropland, growing food more efficiently — with less water, for example — or perhaps most importantly, finding ways to use what we already grow more efficiently.
Paul West wasn't involved in this study, but has been working on solutions with the University of Minnesota's Global Landscapes Initiative, which focuses on solutions for meeting current and future global food needs.
"Right now, about a third of all the food that's produced is wasted. So that's a huge area of opportunity to increase the amount of food that's available around the world," he said.
"What they've shown here is that there are certain places in the world climate change is going to have a much bigger impact than other places. And so in some cases, it's looking at ways of offsetting the losses by meeting those needs through other means, like the food trade system around the world."
That means in the future, the luxury of "eating local" likely won't be an option for increasing numbers of people, particularly in Asia and Africa.