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Flies and fungi: Climate change could make food less safe, experts warn

Feb 16, 2019

“It is known that temperature increase as a result of greenhouse gas emissions may increase food contamination and food-borne diseases,” Cristina Tirado-von der Pahlen, director of international climate initiatives at California’s Loyola Marymount University, told the conference.

But her research found that only three countries mentioned food safety in their national action plans for adapting to climate change, prepared under U.N. negotiations.

Environmentalists have often warned that the world’s crop production system is vulnerable to contamination because of excessive use of pesticides and non-organic agro-chemicals.

And when it comes to climate change, the global food system is responsible for 20 to 30 percent of planet-warming emissions, sparking calls for plant-based diets and new farming methods.


A study out this week found that fly populations would increase with warmer conditions in the Canadian province of Ontario, raising the risk of diarrhoeal disease caused by Campylobacter bacteria when it is carried from animals to humans by flies that land on meals.

Another key food safety concern is that climate change could lead to a hike in mycotoxins, compounds produced by fungi that can cause acute effects, including death, as well as chronic illnesses such as cancer from long-term exposure.

It is estimated that a quarter of the world’s annual crop production is contaminated with mycotoxins, which occur more frequently in areas with a hot and humid climate, the WHO says.

Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer at Mars Inc, said 4.5 billion people are exposed through their diets to aflatoxins, for example, which affect crops like maize, wheat and groundnuts - a situation that could be exacerbated by climate change.

It is predicted that aflatoxin contamination and associated food safety issues will become much more problematic in Europe with warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius, the WHO says - a limit the world is currently set to breach.

“To have safe and nutritious food, our food system must be resilient in the face of climate change,” Shapiro told the conference, adding that the latest plant breeding technologies could be used to produce hardier crop varieties.

Extreme weather associated with climate change, such as more drought and flooding, is expected to reduce crop yields, limiting food supplies - and making hungry communities more likely to eat contaminated food, experts say.

“If climate change brings extreme changes in weather, such as floods, some crops and food products may be more vulnerable to spoilage - and those products may end up in the food chain, which (raises) the food safety issue,” said Silvia Alonso Alvarez, an epidemiologist at the Kenya-based International Livestock Research Institute.

“But the very interesting question of the relationship between food safety and climate change has never really been quantified,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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