Occupational Health And Food Production: Does Climate Change Play A Role?


There is a wealth of evidence linking climate change to food security. Rising global temperatures have been shown to have a direct impact on agriculture—especially in developing countries with less capacity to adapt. While such factors have been clearly established, less visible components of food security have not been as thoroughly explored. That’s why MPH@GW, the online MPH program from The George Washington University, recently published “Hazard Zone: The Impact of Climate Change on Occupational Health.” Here, we’ll examine the interconnectedness between climate change, the health of rural agricultural workers and food production.

Food Security and Climate Change

There have been many publications linking climate change to concerns about food security. One example is the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report thatpredictedclimate change would create a decline in global food production at a pace of 2 percent per decade. Another is arecent study that revealed that “extreme heat waves and droughts” have led to the reduction in global cereal harvests by 10 percent in a 50-year span. And a 2015 assessment report titled,“Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System” noted that “climate change is likely to diminish continued progress on global food security through production disruptions leading to local availability limitations and price increases, interrupted transport conduits, and diminished food safety, among other causes.”One of those “other causes” may relate to the impact of climate change on the health of agricultural workers.

Climate Change and Occupational Health

There are many factors which influence the effectiveness of food production—and one of the most significant is the role that agricultural workers play. Farmers around the world are already being impacted by the negative effects of climate change—both in terms of economic stability and their own health.

As an example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, over one 15-year period, “423 workers in agricultural and nonagricultural industries were reported to have died from exposure to environmental heat; 68 (16%) of these workers were engaged in crop production or support activities for crop production.” The CDC also notes that data indicates that such trends may be on the rise.

As climate change creates a negative impact upon the health of these workers, the ripple effect will likely influence food production and food security, as well. As noted in “Hazard Zone: The Impact of Climate Change on Occupational Health,” there are two primary means by which global climate change has the potential to create such an impact:

  • By increasing the severity and frequency of health issues already impacted by climate.
  • By creating new health threats that didn’t previously exist.

Occupational Health Threats

According to “An Overview of Occupational Risks from Climate Change,” published by faculty from themaster of public health program atMilken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, there are specific climate change-related health threats we can anticipate:

  • Heat—higher levels create the risk of illnesses like heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
  • Extreme weather—which puts workers at risk when exposed to the elements.
  • Ozone—which can lead to serious respiratory conditions with chronic exposure.
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)—which can contribute to some cancers when released.
  • Workplace violence—since heat is often linked to aggressive behavior.
  • Pathogens and vector-borne diseases—which are enhanced in moist environments created by heavy rains.

Though climate change has been clearly linked to major issues like global food security, it is critical that we examine the individual impact, as well. In this context, addressing the occupational health needs of agricultural workers is essential. This is true both for individual benefit and because they play a key role in maintaining adequate food production and food security. Thus, in addressing the broader aspects of climate change, we must not overlook the individual needs of those who are directly affected when it comes to occupational health.

Julie Potyraj is the community manager for MHA@GW and MPH@GW, both offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. For several years, she served as a community development specialist in Zambia coordinating youth empowerment programs and reproductive health education. She is currently an MPH@GW student pursuing a global health degree.


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