The transition to a plant-based diet is on the rise all over the world. While many people are making the switch for health or sustainability reasons, there are people who do not have a choice of what they can or cannot eat. While some may see the rise of plant-focused diets as an exciting alternative to meat products and traditional foods, many others rely solely on them. While it is our common understanding that fruits and vegetables are necessary for a healthy diet, significant problems are on the rise due to plant-based diets.
A report from the Oregon Health and Science University shed light on the potential dangers of neurotoxic chemicals (toxins destructive to nerve tissue), which are found in plants used as the primary nutrients for impoverished and undernourished people. People can be affected by different plant toxins based on factors like age, sex, and genetics; though no factors create greater risk than chronic malnutrition. Plants that cause neurotoxic disorders when they are regularly consumed are far more dangerous to those living in poverty. Climate change and many other factors reduce the number of food sources for these people, thus potentially toxic plants are the only options available. The report highlights three major plant foods.
The first are the ackee and lychee fruits, which are found in West Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. They are accessible sources of nutrition and are very commonly used, but malnourished people are greatly at risk for fatal disorders like hypoglycemic encephalopathy (coma and low blood sugar), which has been known to especially affect young children.
Grass pea is another commonly eaten plant mostly consumed in East Asia, China, and in the horn of Africa. Malnourished consumers have been known to take on neurological disorders such as spastic paraparesis (weakness and stiffness of the legs), which, unlike ackee and lychee, affects children and adults similarly.
Finally, Cassava is widely used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including most of Africa, South America, and Asia. While being a very reliable food source and sustainable source of energy, cassava plants require a meticulous processing system to remove toxic chemicals before consumption. Due to famine and drought (among other casual factors), processing times are reduced, and the chemicals cannot be adequately removed. The product of this is an increase in neurodegenerative disorders, organ failure in children, and cyanide poisoning.
According to a 2019 report from UNICEF, malnutrition and hunger is rapidly increasing in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Western Asia. Africa has the greatest prevalence of undernourishment in the world and all the major potentially toxic plants discussed in the report are relied on for nourishment in Africa. Climate change and food security are the major issues here that need to be addressed in order to avoid worsening the problem. If malnutrition and the environmental effects of climate change are given more attention, a potential global health crisis could be averted before it even begins.