Climate change is expected to alter the quantity, quality, and locations of the world’s food supply. It is expected to decrease the overall amount of food produced as temperatures rise and crop pests increase. Food production will likely decrease most in the tropics as it grows hotter, making farming more difficult. While growing seasons will lengthen closer to the poles, expansion of production there will not compensate for losses in productivity in the tropics. Food nutrient levels are expected to decrease, while contaminant levels in foods could increase.
Weather changes and extreme events can damage and destroy crops and interrupt food transport and delivery, and the problem is expected to be more chronic as the climate changes. Interruptions in food production and delivery at the local, regional, and/or global scales could result in under-nutrition or famine. Food shortages and price volatility are more likely to occur when a nation or region depends primarily on outside food suppliers and when the food supply is concentrated among a just a few suppliers.
Climate change is altering the range and abundance of plants and animals. Plants and animals may shift or migrate outside the boundaries of traditional hunting and gathering areas, reducing the availability of first foods like savis berries.
Barley farmers in the Fairfield Bench in Montana are already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, as hotter and drier growing seasons, combined with unprecedented precipitation events, are leading to low quality crops. This means that farmers are unable to sell to the beer market, their target customer, and must instead sell their crops for feed at one third of the price.
Increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are not only a major driver of climate change, but higher CO2 concentrations are stimulating plants to grow faster, reducing the amounts of nutrients, protein, and essential minerals in plants. Already, many people in the US consume less than the recommended amounts of micronutrients like vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as calcium, and magnesium, as discussed in a study from 2011. Concentrations of zinc, iron, and protein are expected to decrease in staple crops, including wheat, potatoes, rice, maize, and soybean (with the exception of protein in soybean), as shown in recent research. Concentrations of calcium, copper, and magnesium are also expected to decrease, harming human diets.
As temperatures rise and there are more extreme weather events, food will have an increased risk for exposing people to pathogens and toxins. Drought can encourage the spread of Aspergillus flavus, a mold that produces aflatoxin. Toxic chemical levels in food may increase, as changing climactic conditions increase crop pests and weeds, requiring increased applications of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.
Increasingly variable weather and extreme events are predicted to more frequently disrupt food storage and transportation, posing risk of contamination. Heavy rains and snowmelt could increase the concentrations of pathogens in the water supply, increasing the risk of food contamination when the water is used for irrigation. For example, drought conditions can lead to greater risk of exposure to norovirus and Cryptosporidium.
Toxic chemicals, such as Mycotoxins, may increase in frequency and range as warm and moist temperatures increase in some places. Mycotoxins are produced by molds that grow on crops before they are harvested and during storage. Though the food supply is typically regulated to prevent exposure, climate change may increase the vulnerability of food safety systems.
With increased water temperatures, fish and mammals may gain higher concentrations of methylmercury. Eating fish could expose people to increasing levels of mercury in their diets.
Currently, the area within the Blackfeet Reservation can be considered a “food desert”, meaning many residents lack safe and reliable access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other nutritious foods that comprise a healthy diet. High levels of poverty combined with long distances to grocery stores that carry nutritious foods and challenges with using federal food assistance means that many individuals and households are struggling to have reliable access to healthy foods. These preexisting gaps in food security and food sovereignty make the Blackfeet Nation especially vulnerable to climate change impacts to food.
Climate change will likely impact people’s food access differently in the Blackfeet Nation. Older individuals, as well as those living in poverty will be more impacted than higher-income or younger individuals. Pregnant women and their developing babies are especially sensitive to heavy metals and pesticides in foods. Ranch and farm workers and their families are vulnerable to increased chemical exposure when agricultural operations use more pesticides. Difficulties in growing food caused by climate change may also negatively impact the mental health of farm and ranch workers, as discussed in this article.
Next, read about Heat-related Illnesses and Climate Change.
Or, learn about climate change as a health opportunity.
Some of the content found on this page is summarized from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States“, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ “A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change“, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “When Every Drop Counts” to briefly describe some of the possible health outcomes that are most relevant to Blackfeet Country. This page does not include all possible health impacts and outcomes, nor does it include all possible risks and responses.