The organisers of Earth Day 2022 have said that as a planet, we must “act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably).” This goal is admirable and – more importantly – imperative. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body, released a report earlier this year that found roughly half of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to climate change, and that the risk of complex and compounding environmental disasters is increasing at an alarming rate.
The IPCC report also states that “human and ecosystem vulnerability are interdependent.” In other words, the health of human beings relies on the health of the planet. This is especially true in the context of nutrition, which is already being deeply affected by the changing climate.
Worse and more frequent droughts, higher temperatures, reduced soil quality and aggravated environmental disasters all affect food security, making it more difficult to grow sufficient crops to feed the world. These negative trends are expected to continue, as every 1°C temperature rise is associated with a 1.64% increase in the probability of severe food insecurity globally. Up to 183 million more people are at risk of hunger by 2050 because of climate change, which is also expected to drastically raise the number of malnourished children. Already, 27 of the 35 countries most at risk from climate change experience extreme food insecurity.
While climate change exacerbates malnutrition by affecting the availability of food, it also affects the nutritional make-up of food crops. Higher levels of CO2 have been found to reduce the nutritional quality of grains and legumes, which make up around 70% of the zinc and iron intake of people in low- and middle-income countries. These minerals are essential for a fully functioning immune system and prevent anaemia. More nutrient-dense food also helps combat the spread and deadliness of infectious diseases.
However, the negative impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on nutrition is not a one-way street. Far from being random occurrences, these phenomena are driven in large part by unsustainable agricultural practices. For example, food systems account for about 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 70% of water extraction, and 60% of biodiversity loss.
The interconnectedness of nutrition and climate shows that in order to tackle either crisis, we must address both. Once dismissed, such holistic approaches have gained more mainstream traction in recent years. Notably, the ‘One Health’ approach was adopted as a guiding principle by the G7, G20, and World Health Assembly in 2021. This concept has been described by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach – working at the local, regional, national, and global levels – with the goals of achieving optimal health outcomes recognising the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.”
Concepts of the interrelated health of humans, animals, and environment far predate Western society, however. Many indigenous cultures have long held values of “reciprocity, solidarity and balance” both with society and nature. Despite making up just 6% of the world’s population, Indigenous peoples preserve 80% of the world’s biodiversity, and have done so whilst maintaining supplies of nutritious foods for all members of the community.
Examples of this can be seen across multiple Quechua communities of Potato Park in the Andes mountains, who maintain diverse and plentiful potato crops in the face of climate change and global supply issues related to COVID-19. It is possible to scale up some aspects of Indigenous food systems for larger modern populations. Researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa found that prior to contact with European colonisers, the state could have supported about 250,000 acres of traditional food systems, bringing its food production to over one million tonnes annually. In Hawaii today, over 900,000 acres are used to produce only 150,000 tonnes of food.
Indigenous systems have also long been designed to be resilient to climatic changes. For instance, Indigenous populations living on the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh face regular flooding, and have therefore developed a system of floating gardens. These gardens are straw and water hyacinth rafts, covered in soil to grow vegetables and okra. By respecting the environment and working in tandem with it, Indigenous food systems are better able to withstand dramatic shifts.
International organisations are finally beginning to realise the value in Indigenous food systems. In 2020, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN launched the Global-hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems. This initiative aims to bring together Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts and researchers to inform food systems policy, working towards the valuing and protection of Indigenous rights and knowledge. This project is an important step towards the realisation of food systems that provide nutritious food while still protecting the environment.
Despite this progress, there is still much work to do. This Earth Day (Friday 22 April), we must acknowledge that nutrition and climate are fundamentally linked, and our innovations must include the knowledge and values of Indigenous peoples that have been looking after the Earth for generations. Then, by mending the health of our planet, we can also begin to mend the health of our fellow humans