Climate Change Affects Health Through Food, Water Safety

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Oct 24 2008 - 3:04am

The effects of climate change on food and water safety and nutrition are the subject of a seminar, held in Rome, Italy today, jointly organized by WHO/Europe, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), with the support of the Italian Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs. The seminar is held to mark this year's World Food Day, whose theme is the challenges of climate change and bioenergy.

Challenges to nutrition and food and water safety are projected to grow with climate change. While climate change will affect everybody, everyone will not be equally affected. According to the recent WHO publication Protecting health in Europe from climate change (1), more than 60 million people in the eastern part of the WHO European Region live in absolute poverty.

Climate change can worsen health inequities within and among countries and put additional stress on poorer groups. The global cost of climate change is projected to be up to 5% of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of this century. Thus, climate change threatens to undermine progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals: poverty cannot be eliminated while environmental degradation exacerbates malnutrition and food- and waterborne disease.

Consensus is growing on the necessity to implement effective measures to reduce risks and exposure and strong measures to adapt to climate change to reduce effects and help people cope with new threats. Nevertheless, health and equity should be at the core of any policy on climate change. Most of the actions causing climate change originate from the developed world, but the less developed world is likely to bear the biggest burden. As WHO stresses, action taken today and in the next couple of decades in energy, agriculture and land use are essential to curb the problem, but should take account of the effects on human health and the needs of the most vulnerable populations.

Climate change will have considerable implications for risk-assessment bodies, such as the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Meetings on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA) and EFSA, which could be asked to give scientific advice on emerging food safety risks linked to climate-related changes. Changing patterns and practices of crop production could lead to the increased use of agrochemicals, presenting new challenges to risk assessors. The distribution and spread of plant and animal diseases could also be affected; recent outbreaks of bluetongue disease in northern Europe – a region previously untouched by the disease – could be a possible indicator of things to come. Climate change could also have important consequences for nutrition and food security.

Statements of commitment

Dr Marc Danzon, WHO Regional Director for Europe, says: "In the face of what we know about the serious threats posed by climate change to health, the question today is not whether public health action is necessary, but what to do and how to do it. Health systems should respond by helping to strengthen disease control and health protection. Action includes ensuring clean water and sanitation, safe and adequate food, disease surveillance and response, and disaster preparedness; increasing health professionals' awareness of climate-related diseases; delivering accurate and timely information to citizens; and advocating to other sectors reduced emissions that can benefit health. The available knowledge and experience need to be used to adapt to climate change and support the populations facing the greatest risks. The earlier we act, the higher the benefits and the lower the costs."

"Climate change can be expected to present a variety of new challenges in the area of food and feed safety, as well as in related areas such as plant and animal health," says Ms Catherine Geslain-Laneelle, EFSA Executive Director. "EFSA stands ready to assess future risks in the food supply to help protect consumers' health, and has already taken significant steps in this area: for example, through the creation of a dedicated Emerging Risks Unit. Given the scale of the challenge facing us, EFSA and other risk-assessment bodies will need to work closely not only with each other but also with international organizations, Member States and other partners to share relevant information and develop appropriate systems to identify, analyse and tackle emerging risks brought about by climate change."

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