Food security and health in a changing environment

"We can't stop or reverse the changes that are currently happening to our climate, but we can make decisions today that will mitigate impacts 20 or 30 years down the road, and prepare us to adapt to them."

Nisa Drozdowski - 29 October 2019

Sherilee Harper is thrilled that, more than ever before, there is a groundswell of interest and attention to climate change.

"The recent youth climate strike is the largest and most widespread protest in humanity," says Harper, an associate professor in the School of Public Health, and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health. "There's power in protest and assurance that you're not alone in your concerns."

The researcher's work confirms that no one is alone in experiencing the effects of climate change, and she is having an influence on how we respond to the crisis on a global level.

Representing Canada on the United Nations' (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Harper was a lead author of the Special Report on Climate Change (Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate), recently presented and accepted by UN member states. The report will inform UN policies and recommendations and international agreements in responding to the climate change impacts.

As a public health researcher, Harper focuses on the impact the crisis has, and will continue to have, on our health. One critical aspect of that is food security.

"Globally speaking, warming temperatures and changes in precipitation levels are affecting the security of our food sources," she explains. "How that plays out is localized."

Harper points to increasing droughts in some locations, while others experience severe flooding, and increased heat stress in livestock where temperatures are rising. With a global food market, that may mean some foods we rely on and source from outside our own region may not be as readily available.

"A negative effect of food insecurity is certainly reduced caloric intake," says Harper. "But, a more serious and localized threat is a reduction in food diversity, which impacts nutrient intake."

Harper offers rising ocean temperatures as an example. Fish is an important source of protein for coastal fishing communities, significant to Canada which has more coastline than any other country in the world.

"As their marine habitat changes, fish species are shifting their geographical range as well as their traditional seasonal movements and activities. The quality and quantity of fish is impacted, affecting communities' diets, as well as their livelihood."

Indigenous people are more acutely impacted by climate change, so Harper's research has taken place in partnership with Indigenous communities in Canada's Arctic, Uganda and Peru. She says the Indigenous people she works with are key to learning how we can and must adapt to climate change.

"Indigenous communities are often dependent and interconnected with their local environment," she explains. "As a result, they are ready for action. They are willing to try new things and are the real leaders in climate change innovation and adaptation."

For example, Harper says that in many African countries traditional knowledge about when to plant and harvest crops isn't as accurate or reliable with climate change. Combining local knowledge with western meteorological methods and use of technology is supporting agriculture.

In Arctic Canada, Facebook is a common way for residents to share information with each other. The platform isn't easily searchable though, so Harper and her colleagues are working with communities to develop an app that can better sort user-provided information such as trail and ice conditions, and snow and temperature warnings that can protect users when traveling and hunting on the land. The app can send push notifications and provide additional information (how to treat frostbite, for example), to help communities navigate their changing environment.

"In Edmonton, we commonly use weather apps for heat and air quality index warnings. These and early warning systems allow us to make decisions to protect our health and take immediate action for our safety," says Harper. "Technology is increasingly becoming an important tool in adaptation."

Harper says it's not all 'doom and gloom' when it comes to climate change.

"With the evolution of science over the last two decades in particular, there is increasing evidence of climate change," she says. "Added to that, people have more of an interest, appetite and trust in science and evidence. Climate change science deniers are increasingly a minority."

Citing Canada's 2019 federal election, Harper also points out that climate change was the second most important issue to Canadians, and that climate change was addressed in each party's platform, in some way.

"We can't stop or reverse the changes that are currently happening to our climate, but we can make decisions today that will mitigate impacts 20 or 30 years down the road and prepare us to adapt to them."