Putting health first in agricultural production

With the world population predicted to reach nine billion by 2050, increasing agricultural production will be necessary to achieve global food security. Efforts to expand food production will likely include agricultural intensification – producing more from the same area of land – which has been a key factor in boosting global food production in the past 50 years.

Advancements in food production has contributed to hunger reduction and improved nutrition globally. However, there is concern that even this may not enough. Last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report stating:

“Feeding humanity will require a 50 percent increase in the production of food and other agricultural products between 2012 and mid-century”.

Others estimate that 25-70% above current production levels may be sufficient to meet the 2050 crop demand. Regardless of how much more we need to produce, it is well understood that this boost in food supply has potentially high costs for the environment – soil erosion, pollution of groundwater, ecosystem degradation, desertification, fertilizer and pesticide use, and climate change. What is less understood are the public health impacts. For example, there could be health risks to farmers through occupational agricultural management practices, along with consumers through consumption of agricultural input-contaminated products.

But what exactly are these risks?

In a recent systematic review published by the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, my coauthors and I aimed to explore the health risks associated with agricultural intensification. Specifically, we looked at Southeast Asia where agricultural intensification has grown immensely driven by large population growth, strong economies, and a shift in consumer demand. Among the 73 relevant studies identified, it appears that the current knowledge on human health risks of agricultural intensification is limited. Articles almost exclusively focused on pesticides, specifically its exposure to farmers, children living in agricultural areas, and consumers. However, the actual health risks were not often studied. We also found that little research has been done to understand the complex risk factors associated with agricultural intensification, such as evaluating multiple contaminant groups and multiple exposure pathways.

We find that intensification is still largely concerned with how to enhance agricultural productivity while reducing its environmental impacts, but not enough focus on intensification’s complex relationship with human health. Human health should be a priority in initiatives designed to advance food security, and neglecting this may undermine prospective goals. More research to determine long-term health risks associated with agricultural intensification, explore multiple exposure routes and contaminants, and strategies to mitigate health risks, are warranted in order to inform agricultural management decisions that improve food security while protecting the environment and public health.

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