Part 3: Sustainability Issues in Planetary Health

10 Food Security and Climate Change

Authors: Wahl, M.,

Learner Outcomes

After reading this chapter you should be able to:

  • To determine how climate change is impacting food security in Canada
  • To determine how climate change is affecting the health of our communities
  • To identify those populations who are most at risk in our communities for food


Keywords associated with Food Security — edit format here

  • Key words: “climate change”, “environmental health”, “Health literacy”, “climate impact”, “sustainability”, “environmental stewardship”, “food security”

1. What is food security? 

Food security exists when all people have physical and economic access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate food to maintain a healthy and active life [1] (IFPRI 2022).

Climate change and food security individually and collectively pose risks for Canadians. Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe [2](Bush 2022). Changes in climate weather patterns such as global warming and the frequency and magnitude of wet/dry events, including drought, forest fires, and damage to food production, are increasingly impacting Canada and challenging food security globally[2] (Bush 2022).

In Canada, approximately 12.6% of households were food insecure in 2011–2012, constituting approximately 2.8 million adults and 1.5 million children under 18 [3](Tarasuk et al. 2014). These challenges are disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations, including those living on First Nations reserves, service members of the Canadian Forces, those in custody, including prisons or care facilities, and the homeless population [4](Jessiman-Perreault et al. 2017)

Climate change is leading to changes in our environment and impacting food security across Canada, particularly in areas where regional and geographic challenges exist. These include a decreasing number of food stores in rural Canadian communities and the increasing cost of a healthy diet exacerbated by the expense of travel [5] (Drouin 2009). Challenges with food availability are especially true in northern communities that rely on importing and hunting foods, both of which are tied to the environment [6](CCA 2014). Changes in ice thickness reduce access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds for northern indigenous populations. Changing weather patterns can pose significant safety risks for those living in remote locations or navigating ice roads [6][7][8](CCA 2014, Ford et al. 2009, Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources 2006). Within Canada’s remote northern communities, the cost of foods transported over long distances is significantly inflated, contributing to higher prices and, in some cases, unaffordable market foods. [5][9](Drouin 2009, Erber 2010). Declines in food availability are not merely related to access and cost of market food but include a reduction in the local animal population, including traditional foods like caribou. These factors, combined with lower socioeconomic status, leave many of our most vulnerable people at risk for food security [6][7] (CCA 2014, Ford et al. 2009).

The impact of climate change will continue exacerbating these pressures on those currently struggling with food insecurity. For example, the island of Newfoundland has the lowest number of farms in Canada and the lowest average farmland per total area. Currently, 71% of food in the province is imported from the rest of Canada and around the world. Food shipments generally arrive via ferry service and are limited to 2-3 days’ worth of fresh vegetables. Eighty-four percent (84%) of communities in Newfoundland & Labrador do not have an established grocery store [10](FoodFirst NL 2022).

Climate Change and Food Systems in Canada

Canadians represent about 0.5% of the global population, produce about 1.5% of the food in the world, and consume about 0.6% of world food production (Stats Can 2008). In 2004, Canada ranked 8th in the world for cereals, including wheat, barley, and oats; 10th in meat production; and 19th in fisheries and aquaculture production (Stats Can 2008). As the global population increases, the interdependency of food, energy, water, land and biological resources becomes more apparent.

Canada’s role in global food production still allows it to produce 70% of its food domestically, including 80% of the meat and dairy products and 76% of the bread and cereals Canadians consume (Ghanem 2008). Imports account for 40% of fish, fruit, and vegetables (Ghanem 2008).

All foods are not created equal, and our reliance on imported fruit and vegetable production is particularly vulnerable to climate change. These foods, which constitute a significant part of Canadian imports, play an essential role in our overall health as lower fruit and vegetable consumption is linked to several metabolic health conditions (Harrison 2020).

With higher global temperatures, crop yields and the quality of these products are expected to diminish, especially in tropical and semi-tropical regions (Shukla et al., 2019). Changing temperatures impact fruit and vegetable crops differently, with warming temperatures reducing fruit crop output and speeding the growth of annual vegetables (Shukla et al., 2019). Faster crop growth is not necessarily a positive variable for vegetables, as changes in harvesting times, loss of quality and shifts in supply chain availability lead to more significant food loss and waste (Mbow et al., 2019). Adaptation to longer, warmer growing seasons is possible and can lead to greater yields of some crops; However, many plants require seasonality and cold periods to produce good products (Mbow et al., 2019).

Climate change may increase the ability for Canada to produce certain crops. Climate change data has shown that yields of some crops (e.g., maize and wheat) in many lower-latitude regions have been affected negatively by observed climate changes. In contrast, in the higher-latitude areas, yields of some crops (e.g., maize, wheat, and sugar beets) have been affected positively over recent decades (Mbow et al., 2019). However, the increase in CO2 accompanied by higher temperature is projected to lower nutritional quality in many crops (e.g., wheat grown at 546–586 ppm CO2 has 5.9–12.7% less protein, 3.7–6.5% less zinc, and 5.2–7.5% less iron) (Porter et al., 2014). Increasing temperature extremes and variability, changes in precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events can all cause damage to crops, reducing productivity and decreasing yield (Vodden 2021). For example, the Canadian Prairies are seeing reduced groundwater quality and quantity as rainfall accumulation during peak growing months is decreasing and necessitating additional crop irrigation (Vodden 2021).

Canada has been no exception to climate change-related weather events. In 2021 a Calgary hailstorm and flooding in the province of British Columbia flooding resulted in a combined insured loss of $2.01 billion. These disasters constituted Canada’s most significant cost related to climate change events (Canada’s Food Price Report 2022).

Global warming causes significant negative impacts around the world. Warming compounded by dry conditions caused significant adverse effects on yields in parts of the Mediterranean. Based on indigenous and local knowledge (ILK), climate change affects food security in drylands, including those in Africa, Asia, and South America (Mbow et al., 2019).

Climate change challenges globally are impacting food security. Food price increases of 5% to 7% in 2022 have marked the highest increase in food prices since the creation of Canada’s Food Price Report. All indications are that the global supply chain is being impacted, and climate change is a significant factor (Canada’s Food Price Report 2022).

Food Security, Climate Change and Health

The linkages between food security and health outcomes have been well documented. Birth outcomes and maternal health, child development, chronic diseases, mental health, emotional wellbeing, and even increases in health care costs may emerge in food insecure households (Li et al. 2016). Food security includes both access to food and adequate nutrition from food (Friel et al., 2019). Dietary risk factors resulted in more than 800,000 years of disability and the death of approximately 48,000 Canadians (Tarasuk et al., 2015). In Canada, an unhealthy diet is now considered a leading risk for death and disability (Bacon et al., 2019). Many of our most vulnerable community members struggle with food security. Organizations such as food banks are essential in providing immediate solutions to severe food deprivation. However, they are limited in their capacity to improve overall food security outcomes due to the limited provision of nutrient-dense foods in insufficient amounts, mainly from dairy, vegetables and fruits thereby impacting an individual’s health and wellbeing (Bazerghi et al. 2016). The increasing availability of processed and convenience foods has led to over half of Canadians consuming diets that exceed the recommended levels of sugar, saturated fats and sodium (Bacon et al., 2019). These unhealthy diets have also tended to lack appropriate intakes of whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, and vegetables (Bacon et al., 2019).

Food availability is only part of the challenge as the quality of food produced is being impacted by climate change. Although numerous studies over the years have indicated that increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 can increase photosynthesis resulting in higher crop yields, research has also shown that it could have adverse effects on the nutritional content of some crops (Porter 2015, Ziska 2015, Meyers 2017). Food crops subjected to high CO2 levels have shown decreased concentrations of protein, iron, zinc, and critical minerals (Porter 2015, Ziska 2015, Meyers 2017).

As a changing climate impacts the locations and conditions under which food grows, it may also influence the types and frequency of pesticide use (USGCRP 2014). Higher water temperatures and estuarine salinities have enabled an oyster parasite to spread farther north along the Atlantic coast (USGCRP 2014). Changes in arctic temperatures have led to new pathogens, viruses, and parasites that impact wildlife, including salmon diseases in the Bering Sea and the Yukon Chinook Salmon (USGCRP 2014). Finally, warmer temperatures have caused disease outbreaks in coral, eelgrass, and abalone, among other sea life (USGCRP 2014).

Household food insecurity has well-established adverse effects on mental health, which is an example of the implicit impact of climate change that may go unrecognized. As the levels of food insecurity grow higher, so does the risk of adverse mental health conditions (Jessiman-Perreault et al., 2017)

The Role of the Physician

Medical experts who work directly with the public play an important role in improving the health literacy of their patients. As advocates for more sustainable approaches to food security in our communitiesthese individuals can provide essential information on diet and nutrition by referring the patient to dietitians and allied health team members. In turn, allied health team members promote lifestyle changes which can have a positive impact on the overall health of the patient.

Efforts to promote healthy plant-based diets and gardening among patients have resulted in improved health outcomes and a treatment model template that other health care practitioners can use.

CBC – Absolutely Canadian – Plantify Episode. Season 19 Episode 7, 2018. Absolutely Canadian – Plantify (CBC, 2018)

Climate change is directly impacting food security in Canada and around the world. Populations with decreased access to healthy foods, more significant challenges concerning socioeconomic health, geographic isolation and cultural reliance on the environment will face even greater climate change-related threats to their way of life and overall health.






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