Severn Faculty thoughts on how climate change affects food and health

Climate change is one of the stressors, along with a growing population, contributing to the crisis in the food system. Given the close ties between socioeconomic, environmental and food system factors, there is a risk that over time, these disparities could widen. This means the difficulties faced by individuals who presently face food insecurity could worsen. Additionally, it means that a bio-psycho-social approach to treatment must take sustainability and food systems into account.

The Sustainable Development Goals mention food:

  • SDG 2: Promote sustainable agriculture, achieve food security and enhanced nutrition, and end hunger (Targets 2.1, 2.3, 2.4, and 2.5).
  • SDG 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns (Targets 12.2, 12.3, 12.7 and12.8)
  • SDG 15: Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Food insecurity

The statistic compiled by The Food Foundation are sobering. In 2023, 18% of households, or more than 9 million adults and around 4 million children, are experiencing food insecurity.

A Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) report (external PDF) refers to: "low wages, insecure employment, problems with the benefits' system, and health issues" as well trauma and addiction. The effects of food insecurity range from hazards to children's development to increased social isolation. This is because of a blame and shame culture around food insecurity, and the use of food banks and support services.

Community kitchens

I travelled to Bristol to meet with the Co-exist Community Kitchen, a wonderful initiative. They provide community meals that people can self-refer to. They host cooking classes for people with mental health conditions, drug and alcohol issues, and young carers through partnerships with charitable organisations. Their goal is to serve people who are facing food poverty.

Additionally, they try to choose local suppliers and organic foods to increase the sustainability of their food consumption. We discussed how food fosters relationships and how the programmes provide not only nutritional knowledge and education but also wellbeing support. In that regard, it was related to a concept from a BMJ podcast on sustainability called multisolving. It discussed how an intervention might deal with concerns related to inequality, the environment, and health.

Importance of diet

It is fair to say that medical experts are aware of the importance of diet, its effects on social and physical wellbeing. But for a GP, there's only a ten-minute consultation to assist patients in becoming informed, active consumers in the food market. This seems challenging, and possibly unachievable. Having said that, the BMJ podcast also considers the difficulties of recommending diet and lifestyle modifications to patients. This is while putting them back into the environment that created and sustained the food issues in the first place.

The EatWell Diet is one straightforward example that might be used to engage patients in conversation about sustainability when providing dietary advice. Reduction in foods like meat, dairy, and sugary foods has been found to result in a noticeable decrease in carbon emissions, according to the Carbon Trust.

Social responsibility

The first tool in the toolbox seems to be knowing where to direct people. Having better connections within the community you serve can open opportunities to sharing this social responsibility. There are larger political concerns around the use of non-profit organisations and funding for public services. However, if we want to achieve truly integrated care, collaboration between organisations is going to be crucial. A smart place to start is with websites like the Bath and North East Somerset Community Wellbeing Hub.

My key takeaways from visiting the Co-exist communal kitchen and reading some food policy literature are that the issue is enormous and has far-reaching effects. Amazing people work in this area, and relationships are important. Our patients can be connected to one another, their communities, food, nature, and the environment if we connect our organisations.

About the writer

Dr Eve Barnes is a doctor in Severn and is writing a series of blogs on sustainability, focusing on topics linked to primary care. Thanks to Co-exist Community Kitchen for a very insightful visit to their kitchen. Please do let us know any comments on Twitter at @Eve_Barnes or @severnfacultygp.