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How climate change could lead to Australian diets becoming less healthy

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Climate change will negatively impact food supply chains and increase gaps in wealth inequality in Australia, according to new research.
The University of Sydney study found cyclones, floods, bushfires and heatwaves are having direct impacts on the supply of food, which impacts prices, and indirect impacts on other sectors due to the “complex interconnectivity of modern supply chains”.

Lead author of the study, Dr Arunima Malik, who is a senior lecturer in sustainability at the university, told SBS News that climate change will directly make many Australians’ diets less “healthy”.

“We found that there would be a greater loss, because of climate change and extreme weather events, in healthy foods than discretionary foods, and that varies across the scenarios that we modelled.”

Healthy foods include vegetables, meat products, fish and dairy products while discretionary foods include processed meals.

This research highlights that climate change may not only affect food supply in NSW, but access to healthy and equitable diets, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.

Sinead Boylan

The research also looked at how impacts on the output of food, such as crops, has an indirect impact on employment in other sectors across the country.
“When a shock is applied to one sector, because of these interconnections, you can trace how a reduction in output of a crop in the Murray Darling Basin region of New South Wales, for example, flows through to Queensland or to Western Australia, ” Dr Malik said.
“These qualifications were done for a range of scenarios which we obtained from published climate modelling reports.”

Some of the key industries indirectly impacted are the transport and services sectors.

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Widening the gap in wealth inequality

The research also highlights a risk of widening inequalities between the rich and poor created from the effects of climate change on food supplies.
It found that rural communities would be most severely impacted, while more affluent communities would be better positioned to buttress against supply shocks.

Professor David Raubenheimer from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre co-authored the study. He said people from lower socio-economic groups will struggle to afford rising prices for healthy food.

Flood waters on a farm in the NSW Hunter Valley in July. Source: AAP / DARREN PATEMAN

“Disruptions to food supply can negatively impact diet quality, through reducing the variety that contributes to a balanced diet, diverting diets to unhealthy processed foods that have a longer shelf life,” he said.

“This disproportionately impacts vulnerable groups, who do not have the means to pay escalating prices for scarce fresh foods.”
Co-author Dr Sinead Boylan, a public health nutrition researcher at the university’s Sydney Environment Institute, highlighted the importance of “equitable diets”.

“This research highlights that climate change may not only affect food supply in NSW, but access to healthy and equitable diets, particularly among the most vulnerable populations,” she said.

“These findings could help inform mitigation strategies to help these communities adapt.”
Professor in International Relations, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Andrew Walter, told SBS News that climate change can have “differential impacts on household wealth, which may be much larger than its impact on incomes”.
“For example, the direct impact of climate change will likely affect housing prices in ways that can substantially worsen inequality — we’re already seeing this in flood-exposed areas in northern NSW, for example,” he said.
“Poorer households can also have lower spatial mobility and higher debt, which can mean they are more exposed to these kinds of wealth shocks than wealthier households.

“Wealth inequality can influence children’s life chances, household and community opportunities to adjust, wellbeing and inequality in retirement.”

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