Amid their struggle to survive extreme weather conditions, food crops are producing more of chemical compounds that can prove toxic to humans and livestock consuming them, a new U.N. report has warned.

Drought and high temperatures trigger the accumulation of potentially toxic components in crops – similar to how humans respond to stress, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Frontiers report.

The report identified and proposed solutions to six emerging issues in the face of climate change, including crop toxicity, zoonotic diseases and plastic pollution.

Crops Are Turning Toxic

Wheat, barley, maize and millet emerged as crops that are most prone to nitrate accumulation, which results from prolonged drought. In animals, acute nitrate poisoning can cause miscarriage, asphyxiation and even death. It can also ruin the lives and livelihood of small farmers and herders.

Heavy rains after an extended drought, too, can lead to a harmful accumulation of hydrogen cyanide or prussic acid in flax, maize, arrow grass, sorghum, apples, cherries and other crops.

Aflatoxins are another cause for concern. These fungal toxins, which can lead to cancer and hamper fetal growth, are a worry in maize. The contamination is expected to rise in higher latitudes because of rising temperature levels.

Developing Countries, Europe At Risk

Jacqueline McGlade, UNEP chief scientist and early warning and assessment director, said that around 4.5 billion people in developing nations are exposed to aflatoxins every year, although the numbers could rise even more with improved monitoring.

“As warmer climate zones expand toward the poles, countries in more temperate regions are facing new threats,” the report states.

Kenya suffered severe aflatoxin outbreaks back in 2004, which struck more than 300 people and killed more than a hundred after a long period of drought, the International Livestock Research Institute reported.

According to a recent study, aflatoxins will also surface as a food safety threat to Europe, particularly in the likely scenario of a 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures.

Risk Mitigation

The increased toxicity in crops is expected to take a heavy toll on the global health system, which is already reeling from the impacts of food insecurity, said Dorota Jarosinska of the World Health Organization’s European Center for Environment and Health.

The UNEP report put forward eight ideas that farmers and agriculture specialists can use to limit damage from increased crop toxins, including outlining contamination hotspots as well as building better proof of how toxins are acting in their location.

Crop rotation designed for coping with the changing climate, too, is encouraged in to help slash the amounts of toxic chemicals present in food.

Climate change is bringing about other drastic occurrences worldwide, including longer and more frequently occurring toxic algal blooms.

Photo: Parker Knight | Flickr

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