March 20, 2017

The impacts of climate change on agricultural workers

Julie Potyraj, Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University

A thriving agriculture sector is necessary for food production. But a healthy agricultural workforce is just as important.

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow from its current 7.37 billion to 9.7 billion. With almost 2.5 billion more mouths to feed, global food demand will also inevitably increase. In fact, between 2005 and 2050, global food demand is expected to increase between 59 percent and 98 percent. In order to meet this demand, food production in developing countries will need to double. But does the world’s agriculture sector have the capacity to fulfill these production needs?

Climate change poses a great threat to the agriculture sector, and therefore, the food and employment that the agriculture sector creates. Extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods and increased temperatures all have the potential to negatively impact crop yields. In 2013, the IPCC estimated that climate change will cause a 2 percent decline in global food production for every decade over the course of the next century, while food demand increases by 14 percent at the same rate. This failure to meet food demand is expected to result in greater levels of malnutrition and hunger-related deaths.

“…outdoor workers, including agricultural workers, will be the first to experience the environmental effects of climate change as global temperatures rise.”

A thriving agriculture sector is necessary for food production. But a healthy agricultural workforce is just as important. Agricultural workers are among the populations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to “An Overview of Occupational Risks from Climate Change,” published by faculty from the Master of Public Health program at the George Washington University, outdoor workers, including agricultural workers, will be the first to experience the environmental effects of climate change as global temperatures rise. Heat-related conditions will be among the most notable impacts on agricultural workers’ health. However, climate-related risks will also include spread of infectious disease, extreme weather events and decreased air quality.

MPH@GW, the online MPH program at GW, recently published the following graphic to summarize some of the ways that climate change will threaten occupational health:

infographic_climage-change-and-health-hazards

The health of humans is intrinsically linked to the health of the environment. Agricultural workers are on the front lines of this intersection as both producers and consumers of food. It benefits all of us to protect the people who are responsible for our food supply. International agreements and national policies are essential to promoting climate mitigation at a global level. However, it is often a challenge for all countries to reach an enforceable consensus. Once a decision is agreed upon, it can take a long time before countries start taking action.

But the health of agricultural workers can’t afford this delay. Climate adaptation strategies, which can be implemented on a much smaller scale, do not need to wait for sweeping policy changes.

According to the MPH@GW article, there are a number of actions that employers can take to safeguard the health of their workers:

  • Increasing frequency and length of breaks
  • Altering workday schedules to limit exposures
  • Finding alternatives for heat-inducing protective body gear
  • Tracking changes in occupational and environmental exposures and patterns of injury and illness
  • Distributing small, sensor-based technology that can pre-warn workers about exposures
  • Training workers to identify climate-related exposures that can cause hazards

As food demand and global temperatures rise, the health of agricultural workers will heavily rely on the efficacy of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

 

Featured image is “Celery” by Dan Long, from Flickr.

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