A Cornell University study linked extreme heat to malnutrition among West African children.
Starving can lead to higher death rates and lower education and income in adulthood.
a food crisis is unfolding across the world due to climate change and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Babies and young children are more vulnerable to the extreme heat that blankets the world than previously known.
Rising temperatures could end progress in reducing child malnutrition in West Africa, researchers have warned in a study of more than 32,000 children aged between 3 and 36 months. This, in turn, could slow economic development, with malnutrition linked to higher mortality rates and lower education and income later in life.
“What’s impressive, and perhaps most important, is that these heat effects are permanent,” Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, an associate professor and applied agricultural economist at Cornell University and co-author of the study, told Insider.
Ortiz-Bobea was part of a team that analyzed health and climate data from Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo. Growth stunted by malnutrition was nearly 6% more prevalent among children who spent at least 12 days a month in temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius, or 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers found.
This kind of extreme heat is becoming more frequent as greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, transport and agriculture warm the planet. If global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a threshold climate scientists say is likely without sharp cuts in emissions — the average stunted growth rate among children in West Africa could nearly double to 7.4 % and erase previous gains.
“Here in the US, heat is usually just an inconvenience,” Ortiz-Bobea said. “But in many parts of the world, you can’t just turn the AC on. Children in the most vulnerable regions are not responsible for climate change, but they are suffering the impacts. It’s tragic.”
The research landed amid a global food crisis caused by climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a major grain exporter to developing countries in the Middle East and Africa. On Monday, shipments resumed under an agreement brokered by the United Nations, Turkey and Ukraine.
Separate studies have shown that rising temperatures can reduce yields of staple crops that account for two-thirds of all calories humans eat, including wheat, rice, corn and soybeans. Natural disasters such as heavy rains and droughts are becoming more frequent and can destroy crops and livestock.
Cornell’s research on malnutrition did not capture how extreme heat affected West Africa’s food supply because of data limitations, Ortiz-Bobea said. While there is some evidence suggesting that lower agricultural production may play a role, more research is needed to really define this, she added.
In any case, there is a dire need for more research and development in West Africa – and across the continent – to create new crop varieties that account for the local impacts of climate change.
“We need more people in the business of producing new seed technologies that farmers want to adopt,” Ortiz-Bobea said.
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