Climate Change Could Undo Years of Progress in Fight Against Child Malnutrition

A new study shows how higher temperatures reduce diet diversity in children.

The Terraced Field And The Classic Nepali Villages Over The Valley, Dhulikhel, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal
Terraced fields in Nepal, one of 19 countries included in the research. Emad aljumah / Getty Images

A new study from the University of Vermont has raised an alert about the effect climate change could have on child malnutrition globally. The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, examined the health data of 107,000 children under age five in 19 middle- to low-income countries across six regions of the world. 

The children's diet diversity was measured and compared to 30 years' worth of temperature and precipitation data, as well as socio-economic, ecological, and geographic data. The result was a first-of-its-kind investigation showing that higher temperatures and greater rainfall have a real impact on how much and what kinds of food children eat. 

What the researchers found is that higher temperatures result in lower diet diversity. Children in the study had eaten, on average, foods from 3.2 food groups (out of 10) within the last 24-hour period. These included meat and fish, legumes, dark leafy greens and cereal greens. This was, however, significantly less than in more affluent countries or those with emerging economies, such as China, where children age 6 and under eat from 6.8 food groups on average.

Diet diversity is a metric developed by the United Nations to gauge diet quality and micronutrient intake. From a University of Vermont press release: "Micronutrients, such as iron, folic acid, zinc, and vitamins A and D, are critical for child development. A lack of micronutrients is a cause of malnutrition, which affects one out of every three children under the age of five. Diet diversity is measured by counting the number of food groups eaten over a given time period."

Lack of diversity can lead to malnutrition and stunting in children's growth, which is why many governments and non-profits have been working hard over the past several decades to improve factors that influence nutrition, such as education, sanitation, and poverty reduction. But now this study reveals that rising temperatures could have a greater impact on children's diet diversity than the gains seen from all this valuable work. 

"Certainly, future climate changes have been predicted to affect malnutrition, but it surprised us that higher temperatures are already showing an impact," said lead study author Dr. Meredith Niles, assistant professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont.

There are numerous ways in which higher temperatures harm diet diversity. Heat is hard on food sources, both plant and animal. Livestock's physiology is affected by heat and they drink more water. Heat affects crop yields, and thus food prices and access, making trade more difficult. Pregnant women suffer from the effects of heat, sometimes giving birth to small babies as a result. 

From the study's discussion: "Indirectly, higher temperatures also have the potential to influence the macro and micronutrient content of a variety of crops, which may not directly affect the overall number of diet categories consumed, but could contribute to micronutrient deficiencies over time."

There was some good news in the study. Increased rainfall, which is also a side effect of climate change, resulted in improved diet diversity, thanks to improved crop yields and greater access to food. In some cases, it had a greater impact on child diet diversity than education, improved sanitation, or greater forest cover. Molly Brown, study co-author, said,

"Higher rainfall in the future may provide important diet quality benefits in multiple ways, but it also depends on how that rain comes. If it’s more erratic and intense, as is predicted with climate change, this may not hold true."

As the study concludes, there is an immediate need to "increase our poor understanding of climate adaptation efforts to safeguard childhood nutrition." Faced with the fact that positive socioeconomic and demographic changes "may not be adequate to outweigh the negative effects of a changing climate going forward," it's crucial that any future work be focused on bringing climate adaptation strategies to under-developed regions.

Dr. Niles told Treehugger that there is "an urgency to ensure that climate change is integrated into our thinking about all development efforts and nutritional assistance programs." What exactly this will look like is still unclear, but it's crucial if we are to avoid undoing the significant gains made over the past 50 years.

View Article Sources
  1. Niles, Meredith T., et al. "Climate Impacts Associated with Reduced Diet Diversity in Children Across Nineteen Countries." Environmental Research Letters, vol. 16, no. 1, 2021, p. 015010, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abd0ab

  2. "Climate Change is Hurting Children’S Diets, Global Study Finds." The University of Vermont.