Popular food crops including maize and beans respond to extreme conditions by releasing dangerous chemicals
Climate change threatens to poison the food supply of some of the world’s poorest people as crops respond to rising temperatures by pumping out dangerous chemicals.
When drought strikes, plants like maize, beans and cassava response by flooding themselves with nitrates and hydrogen cyanide – substances that can be fatal to livestock and humans alike.
Further problems arise from the spread of toxin-producing fungal infections under warmer conditions, which are already responsible for thousands of liver cancer cases in Africa every year.
And of course “if temperatures rise” as well as other things.
While these issues are a particular concern in developing nations with hotter climates, if temperatures rise as scientists predict, they will probably begin to take their toll further north as well.
Her interest in the problem was first roused when reports emerged from Ethiopia of impoverished farmers and their animals dying in mysterious circumstances.
The country was in the grip of a drought, but this did not explain the neurological problems that were afflicting these people, including blindness, difficult movements and ultimately death.
Scientists actually identified the real problem.
Researchers working in the area realised the drought had damaged the farmers’ crops, forcing people to consume wild plants they found by the roadside.
But that didn’t stop others from worrying about hypotheticals.
Unfortunately, the stress of drought had also triggered a defence mechanism inside these plants, flooding them with hydrogen cyanide.
Professor McGlade collected all the available information on this topic into a report for the UN back in 2016, in which she and a team of scientists attempted to identify emerging environmental problems.
“What I was trying to do was raise issues long before they become embedded as problems – raising the red flag,” she said.
“Fast-forward to today and we are talking about climate change – here is something that is really going to challenge food safety, because the very plants we are relying on are themselves adapting to climate change.