A call to action on food systems and climate change

K. Srinath Reddy

September 30, 2015 Researchers and policy makers must take steps to address air pollution, climate change, and other environmental issues related to crop and livestock production that, left unchanged, could one day severely impact the world’s food supply and human health, K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India and adjunct professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told an audience September 25, 2015 at the School.

“We live in a world where food systems are threatening the environment and environmental degradation from a variety of sources is threatening food systems. This will get worse if we don’t change,” said Reddy, who presented the 2015 Milton J. Rosenau Lecture in Kresge G2. The talk, “Health in the Era of Sustainable Development,” was sponsored by the Office of the Dean.

In his introduction, Acting Dean David Hunter said Reddy, an international leader in preventive cardiology, was an excellent choice for the lecture series, which is a critical part of the Research Strategy Review (RSR) that is underway to identify areas the School’s research program should target over the next 20 years. Reddy, has been a researcher, teacher, policy enabler, advocate, and activist who has worked to promote cardiovascular health, tobacco control, chronic disease prevention, and healthy living across the lifespan. The former head of the Department of Cardiology at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, he was appointed the First Bernard Lown Visiting Professor of Cardiovascular Health at Harvard Chan School in 2009.

“Air pollution is the world’s single greatest environmental pollution health risk,” Reddy said. Annually 3.3 million globally die prematurely from outdoor pollution, mostly fine-particle air pollution, and the number is projected to double by 2050 to 6.6 million if emissions continue to rise, he said. Three billion people cook with solid biomass fuels, he said, contributing to many air pollution deaths in Asia, Africa, and other nations.

Scientists must figure out how to grow nutrient-rich crops that are able to withstand the higher temperatures anticipated as part of climate change and that can tolerate reduced water supplies, said Reddy. By 2050, as a result of climate change, crop and livestock production is expected to fall 2% per decade while demand for food is projected to grow 14% per decade due to population growth and other factors. By 2100, 40% of the world’s land surface will have altered climates. “It’s not just global warming, it’s global harming,” Reddy said, referencing increased storms and flooding in Asia and other parts of the world that he said are linked to climate change.

One of the actions that he recommended, which he dubbed “climate-smart,” was to focus on promoting diverse, high-quality, healthy diets. He said new metrics are needed to measure diet quality, actual food intake, and measure food system efficiency and sustainability. He also called for new policies to reduce food waste. About one-third of food worldwide is wasted, he said.

View a video of the talk

 Marge Dwyer

photo: Emily Cuccarese