World Food Safety At Risk From Climate Change: Lewis

“It’s paralyzing to see such hunger. But you can’t compromise on food safety.”


Climate change poses a huge danger to food safety, especially in Africa, where many already go hungry, a national food science summit in Winnipeg was warned May 31.

“Volcanic shifts” in weather patterns expected in the next 20 to 40 years will create “new paths for pathogens” to endanger the safety of food many desperately lack, Stephen Lewis told the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology conference.

Droughts, floods and other climatic upheavals could produce biotoxins, zoonotic diseases and other food safety risks originating in the developed world and eventually spreading to developed countries, predicted Lewis, keynote speaker at the two-day conference.

A warmer climate has already spread malaria to parts of northern Africa that have never experienced it before. The same could hold true for plant and animal diseases, said Lewis, a global health professor at McMaster University.

Lewis warned the spread of pathogens poses a “staggering” threat to food safety. He urged researchers to increase their efforts to improve the safety of food as well as increase its production.

The immediate danger is to Africa’s one billion people, many of whom already suffer from malnourishment, he said. At present, food safety is an afterthought in most developing countries struggling just to provide adequate food supplies.

“Food is everything,” said Lewis. “It’s paralyzing to see such hunger. But you can’t compromise on food safety.”

Later, Lewis called food safety an all-industry matter for which farmers are only partly responsible.

“The guy on the tractor in Manitoba is doing his or her job in providing food for Canadians and beyond. The guy on the tractor simply has to feel confident that the scientists who are in charge of food safety are doing their jobs,” he said.

“It’s not the farmer’s job to provide food safety except within his own limited realm. It’s really the businesses and the retailers who eventually sell the food to the public who have to make sure that every step along the chain is secure and safe.”

As a United Nations special HIV/AIDS envoy from 2001 to 2006, Lewis witnessed first hand the ravages of the disease throughout Africa.

But hunger is an even greater factor than AIDS in the deaths of so many Africans, Lewis said. Without adequate, nutritious food, human bodies are too weak to benefit from anti-retroviral drugs used to fight AIDS infection.

He described visiting AIDSstricken families in Malawi, where grandparents cared for their orphan grandchildren and households were sometimes headed by children as young as eight. Asked what they needed most, none said drugs. All said food.

Food production in Africa is affected, not just by climatic disasters, but also a sharp decline in agricultural research funding, Lewis added.

He noted G8 countries, which includes Canada, provided 20 per cent of the world’s foreign development assistance for agriculture in 1970. In 2008, the figure was down to five per cent.

That hampers the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s goal of cutting world hunger in half by 2015, Lewis said. [email protected]

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