Is there a connection between climate change and increased foodborne illness?

  • Dec. 4, 2018 3:28 p.m.

Dear EarthTalk: I read the federal government’s recently released climate change report, and was surprised to learn that global warming is even being blamed for an increase in foodborne illness. What’s the connection?

—Jeremy Brotherton, Camden, Maine

Yes, the new federal climate report (the “Fourth National Climate Assessment”) paints a dire picture of our future —including compromised food safety —if we don’t rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the nonprofit Stop Foodborne Illness (SFI), climate change is already starting to affect food safety as a result of increased bacterial adaptation to fast-changing environmental conditions brought on by warming surface temperatures. In essence, the bacteria that rules the world is getting better at adapting to new environments. The stronger the bacteria, the better it can do colonizing new territory —and making more of us sick. One side effect of increased bacterial resistance is much more use of antibiotics by veterinarians, farmers and ranchers to keep animals healthy. But it’s a zero-sum game: The more antibiotics we use on ourselves and animals, the better bacteria get at developing resistance to them.

Additionally, global warming brings increased flooding, which spreads pathogens from misdirected waste streams across soils, including where children play and food crops grow. Meanwhile, warming-induced drought compromises overall soil health and brings new bacterial challenges to farmers and ranchers.

Another way global warming contributes to more foodborne illness is by increasing the incidence and severity of natural disasters where first responders may not prioritize food safety and many of the affected are left without power or running water that could help them sanitize food.

Likewise, agricultural experts worry that exaggerated “mycotoxin” growth in a warmer world could also contaminate food sources. “Mycotoxins are a group of highly toxic chemical substances that are produced by toxigenic molds that commonly grow on a number of crops,” reports SFI. High temperature, humidity and precipitation brought on by climate change can create optimal conditions for mold growth.

“At high doses, mycotoxins produce acute symptoms and deaths, and particular mycotoxins may possess carcinogenic, immunosuppressive, neurotoxic, estrogenic and teratogenic activity,” adds SFI. What’s scary is that we could already be ingesting these contaminants —and surely will be more so in the future —by eating inadvertently infected crops and/or meat derived from livestock raised on contaminated feed.

And then there’s “zoonosis,” the transmittal of diseases from pets and livestock to people through direct contact with infected animals, meat or wastes. Climate change will increase the susceptibility of animals to disease, says SFI, thus increasing the likelihood of our contracting illnesses from animals.

While we can try our best to eat responsibly grown foods and stay out of the way of potentially infected animals, the solution to global warming-induced increases in foodborne illness is to stop emitting greenhouse gases. But as we are finding, that’s much more easily said than done.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID cases climb in central zone, Red Deer

The total number of active COVID-19 cases in the province reached 3,138… Continue reading

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s municipal affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Energy industry support won’t injure municipalities

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Premier Jason Kenney participated in a livestream on Oct. 17, 2020. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
UCP members pass resolution at AGM calling for privately funded health care option

EDMONTON — Members of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party have narrowly endorsed… Continue reading

“We weren’t sure what to expect with just doing the 50/50. We have been positively surprised with sales so far,” says Craig Fleming, co-chair of the Red Deer Kinsmen Club’s raffle. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Non-profits put their money on 50/50 draws

COVID impacts fundraising events

Student taking a math test. (Pixabay photo)
David Marsden: Students need more testing, not less

Testing has been central to Alberta’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s… Continue reading

Gillian Robertson celebrates her win over Sarah Frota during UFC 240, in Edmonton, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Robertson used her superior grappling skills to dominate Brazil's Poliano Botelho en route to a unanimous decision win Saturday night on a UFC Fight Night card. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian Gillian (The Savage) Robertson dominates in UFC decision win in Abu Dhabi

Canadian Gillian (The Savage) Robertson dominates in UFC decision win in Abu Dhabi

Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis, right, hugs captain Kyle Bekker following their victory in the Canadian Premier League soccer final against Cavalry FC in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. A month after winning the Island Games in Charlottetown, Hamilton-based Forge FC is back on the move. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CPL champion Forge FC off to El Salvador for CONCACAF League preliminary-round match

CPL champion Forge FC off to El Salvador for CONCACAF League preliminary-round match

Course workers prepare the landing area at the ski jump venue in Whistler Olympic Park in Whistler, B.C. Friday, Feb. 5, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Next generation of Canadian ski talent sets sights on Whistler, B.C., in 2023

Next generation of Canadian ski talent sets sights on Whistler, B.C., in 2023

Mighty Heart is held by groom Siobhan Brown in his stall at trainer Josie Carroll's stable at Woodbine Racetrack, in Toronto, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The one eyed horse, will run in the $400,000 Breeders' Stakes on October 24, attempting to become Canada's first horse to win the Triple Crown since Wando in 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Rain could present big challenge in Mighty Heart’s quest to capture Triple Crown

Rain could present big challenge in Mighty Heart’s quest to capture Triple Crown

Veteran sniper Evgenii Dadonov excited to join Senators: ‘It’s a perfect fit’

Veteran sniper Evgenii Dadonov excited to join Senators: ‘It’s a perfect fit’

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (27) gets pushed out of bund by Green Bay Packers free safety Darnell Savage (26) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Packers seek to bounce back after embarrassing defeat

Packers seek to bounce back after embarrassing defeat

World junior hockey championship opens on Christmas Day for first time since 2005

World junior hockey championship opens on Christmas Day for first time since 2005

Most Read