The local and global food system is an underlying and essential public health foundation that plays a role in nutrition, obesity, environmental and occupational health, and more. Regardless of how well-established agriculture is within the United States, climate change poses a serious threat to food systems and the people who rely on them. Unusual rain patterns, droughts, floods, and rising temperatures are already influencing the types of crops that can be grown in certain regions. To promote worldwide awareness of such issues and the need to ensure food security and nutritious diets for all, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations recognizes October 16, 2017 as World Food Day. This year’s theme, “Change the future of migration. Invest in food security and rural development,” explores food and migration, and asks public health professionals to reflect on how migration fits into the complex ecological model that is responsible for the health and well-being of millions, both domestically and abroad.
The Intersection of Climate Change, Migration, and Agriculture
Within the national context of agriculture and climate change, it is important to consider patterns of internal migration. Internal migration is defined as the movement of populations within a country, and is highly relevant to patterns of agrarian livelihood in the United States. Within the U.S., there is significant regional movement of migrant agricultural workers who travel to different locations based on the seasonal planting, care, and harvesting of crops. As changes in climate affect the times and locations where farm labor is necessary, it is likely that local jurisdictions will also experience a redistribution of their migrant workers. For populations that rely on food production and the workforce that produces these necessary food staples, this could be problematic.
Predictive models indicate that as global temperatures increase, there will be a decrease in crop yields for regions that have been historically viable. This means that there may be a significant shift in crop production from low latitudes to high latitudes; in North America, the transition would be from southern to northern areas. However, agriculture is also dependent on other important ecological patterns, such as rainfall and the availability of water beneath the earth’s surface. Because these anticipated changes are not understood with great accuracy, the exact regions of crop decline are unknown. And since these effects are not limited to crop yield alone, livestock and its supporting workforce will also be negatively impacted by exposure to higher temperatures.
Impacts of Climate Change on Environmental and Occupational Health Hazards of Agriculture
Migrant and seasonal agricultural workers already face a unique set of public health challenges. Many have difficulty obtaining and affording health insurance. The vast majority of agricultural workers in the United States are Hispanic or Latino, necessitating conversations on health equity and culturally appropriate services that address language barriers. Agriculture poses environmental and occupational health hazards including exposure to pesticides, skin and respiratory irritants, and injury. Individuals who work with livestock may also be exposed to biological hazards such as E. coli and avian influenza. Exposure to extreme heat is another significant health hazard faced by agricultural workers. Climate change will not only alter patterns of migration, but will also increase average temperatures with an anticipated rise in heat-related illness and death. Additionally, expanding ranges of mosquitos and ticks due to warmer temperatures is already increasing the geographic distribution of vector-borne diseases. Some rural health departments are already planning efforts to mitigate these climate-related health hazards within their own population, and should also prepare for the potential changes in size of the migrant workforce. But what about their urban counterparts?
Climate Change in the Concrete Jungle
The intersection of food, climate, and migration is by no means limited to rural regions of the United States. Cities have long struggled with the existence of food deserts, which are defined as areas where access to healthy food—particularly fresh fruits and vegetables—is scarce. Low-income populations and communities of color are more likely to live in food deserts and experience the associated negative effects of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. In fact, both rural and urban case studies demonstrate that poor and marginalized populations will disproportionately feel the negative effects of climate change. Innovative solutions to this problem, such as community gardens and SNAP-focused mobile farmer’s markets, face the same climate-related challenges as rural settings. While these forms of urban agriculture may not be directly linked to migration to and from cities, issues of both gentrification and urban exodus can impact neighborhood economies and therefore vulnerability to food insecurities.
Breaking the Cycle: Fight the Effects of Climate Change with your Fork
In addition to being affected by the short- and long-term consequences of climate change, agriculture is also one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the FAO, approximately 15% of all emissions come from livestock farming alone, while deforestation and land use changes account for 10%. A 2014 study estimated that moving from a high meat diet to a low meat diet would reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by almost 1,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. Local health departments, universities, and businesses seeking to set an example for both physical and environmental health have been joining the “Meatless Monday” campaign, which encourages their populations to cut meat from their diet one day per week. Choosing a plant-based diet, even only on some days, has the potential to improve health outcomes and drastically reduce carbon emissions.
While these issues are top-of-mind on this important awareness day, it’s important to address the impacts of climate change year-round. In the coming months, NACCHO will be releasing a compendium of case studies featuring local health departments currently working to mitigate the negative health effects of climate change in their communities, including vulnerabilities to food insecurity, extreme heat, and other issues. If you are interested in learning more about how your local health department can prevent these negative health effects in your jurisdiction, visit the NACCHO Toolbox and search for “climate change” or “migration.” For more information about World Food Day 2017, visit the FAO website.