Climate Change, Extreme Weather and Toxic Crops

by Daniel Brouse

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a report that examines how climate change is increasing the toxicity of crops.

Crop Toxicity
Extreme weather events, such as “drought and high temperatures, can trigger the accumulation in crops of chemical compounds that are toxic to animals and humans.”

The report goes on to say: Wheat, barley, maize (corn) and millet are among the crops most susceptible to nitrate accumulation, which is caused by prolonged drought. Acute nitrate poisoning in animals can lead to miscarriage, asphyxiation and death, ruining the lives of smallholder farmers and herders.

Heavy rains that break prolonged drought can also result in the dangerous accumulation of another toxic compound called hydrogen cyanide or prussic acid in crops like flax, maize, sorghum, arrow grass, cherries and apples.

Aflatoxins, which are fungal toxins that can cause cancer and stunt foetal growth, are another emerging problem in crops. The risk of aflatoxin contamination, especially in maize, is expected to increase in higher latitudes due to rising temperatures. A recent study predicts that this toxin will become a food safety issue for Europe, especially in the most likely scenario of a 2oC rise in global temperatures.

The report highlights two critical issues associated with climate change – loss and damage. Given the delays in the last 25 years in mitigating and adapting to climate change, scientific evidence suggests that losses and damages from climate change are inevitable, with profound consequences for ecosystems, people, assets and economies. This is already happening. The heat waves of 2003 are a good example of what happens when efforts to mitigate and adapt to changes in the climate fail: 30,000 people died, glaciers decreased, permafrost thawed and the European Union’s agricultural sector lost $14.7 billion.

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