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The Link Between Climate Change and Nutrition In Africa

Bridget Carle gardening with local students while in South Africa.

When Bridget Carle’s plane landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, this past May she was ready to learn about a range of issues related to malnutrition. What she didn’t expect was what she learned about the link between climate change and malnutrition.

Carle is the sixth Aid for Africa Endowed Scholar and a graduate student at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She was able to undertake her work in South Africa with support from the Aid for Africa Endowment for Food and Sustainable Agriculture, a partnership between Tufts’ Nutrition School and Aid for Africa. Carle worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature, which conducts ongoing research projects in the country.

“There has been a sharp increase in obesity rates in South Africa,” Carle said. “Simultaneously, a significant portion of the population is undernourished.” South Africa is not alone in this conundrum. Many countries around the world are still struggling to ensure adults and children have adequate food and now face a newer problem of rising obesity rates, she said.

Wheat fields in South Africa. Climate change may reduce the nutritional content of wheat plants.

According to Carle, South Africa’s rise in obesity is linked to increased purchases of less healthy, processed foods, which have few nutrients and high amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fat. Food corporations are making processed foods readily available to people who are seeking convenience, particularly those in urban areas. “More than 60 percent of South Africa’s population lives in the cities,” she said.

But foods don’t have to be processed to lose their nutritional value, Carle discovered.

“Agricultural researchers have found that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere associated with climate change can effect crop production,” she said. “But now we are learning that higher levels of CO2 are likely to reduce levels of essential nutrients like zinc, iron and Vitamin A, as well as the protein content of crops.”

Through her research she learned that when crops such as wheat, rice and maize—food staples—are exposed to higher levels of carbon dioxide, the nutritional quality of the crops diminishes–varying by crops, geographies and forecasts.

Carle said that these issues could produce a nutrition crisis as South Africans increase their reliance on less-healthy processed foods and the effects of climate change reduce the quality of foods.

“Clearly, given how climate change may affect human nutrition, climate researchers looking at food production need to be working with nutrition researchers to see what the full picture will be,” Carle said.

Learn more about the Aid for Africa Endowment for Food and Sustainable Agriculture on our website.