- Rising global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels could lead to reduction of key nutrients such as iron and zinc in major food crops including wheat, rice, maize, and soybeans by 2050.
- Approximately 2 billion people globally, who rely heavily on these staple crops, are already experiencing significant mineral and vitamin deficiencies. This situation is expected to get worse as nutrient levels decrease in food crops.
- The study revealed that elevated CO2 levels led to significant reductions in iron and zinc in many varieties of wheat, peas, and soybeans with protein levels in wheat also decreasing.
- Addressing this nutritional threat could involve limiting CO2 levels, which is quite challenging, or developing crop varieties that are less sensitive to elevated CO2 levels. This could possibly be achieved through bio-fortification or aggressive global mineral supplementation programs.
- The reduction of iron and zinc in food crops poses a serious health risk as iron is vital for the production of red blood cells and zinc is crucial for a functioning immune system.
With global carbon dioxide (CO2) figures constantly surging, a recent inspection of food crops suggests that numerous key nutrients might be lost from many of our primary food sources.
The Effect of Rising CO2 Levels
The investigation examines the way nutrients present in our primary staples, which include wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, soybeans, and field peas, withstand the projected amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by 2050.
Dr. Samuel Myers, the leading scientist of the research and an instructor in medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health, expresses, “Our study demonstrates that by 2050, a significant portion of the global population’s food intake will have lost vital nutrients like iron and zinc, which are essential for human nutrition.”
The Burden of Nutrient Deficiency
Dr. Myers emphasizes the significance of this issue, “Presently, about 2 billion people are greatly affected by substantial mineral and vitamin deficiencies. Furthermore, the associated disease burden, particularly in developing countries, is already substantial.“
He further stresses the enormity of the problem, highlighting that about 1.9 billion people globally obtain at least 70 percent of their dietary iron or zinc (or both) from staple crops like grains and legumes. The health issue, which is already serious, is set to further escalate, he warns.
The Research Study
The findings of this investigation were disclosed in a research letter published online in Nature. CO2 is a gas that is naturally present in the atmosphere. But, the majority currently in the atmosphere results from human activities such as electricity generation and automobile use, states the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases that’s leading to climate change.
At the moment, the global carbon dioxide levels are approximately at 400 parts per million. However, most experts estimate that by 2050, the world will see levels reaching 550 parts per million. Based on this prediction, the research team set up seven agricultural sites across Australia, Japan, and the United States. They cultivated 41 types of grains and legumes in open-air conditions, with CO2 levels set between 546 and 586 parts per million.
The Impact on Nutrient Levels
Nutritional testing revealed varying results across different crops. Some crops like maize and sorghum seemed to fare better, presumably due to their previous exposure to higher CO2 levels. Certain varieties of rice maintained their nutritional content despite elevated CO2 levels. However, significant amounts of iron and zinc were reduced in many varieties of wheat, peas, and soybeans. For instance, zinc levels in wheat dropped by more than 9 percent, with a 5 percent drop in iron. Protein levels in wheat also decreased by more than 6 percent, according to the research.
The research team, led by Myers, concludes that the nutritional threat posed by rising levels of CO2 is genuine and pressing. And Myers keenly stresses that the link between CO2 levels and nutrition is different from broader climate changes, stating, “The nutritional impact we’ve identified here depends entirely on the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, and nothing else.”
Addressing the Nutritional Threat
Myers suggests two potential approaches to tackling the looming problem. The first involves limiting CO2 levels, but he notes that this strategy has its caveats. “The CO2 levels anticipated by 2050 are expected to occur regardless of any current efforts to mitigate climate change,” he explains. Myers also brings up the urgency of striving to reduce CO2 levels, adding that “unless we develop an unprecedented technology to eliminate vast amounts of CO2 from the air, the predicted nutritional impact will happen.”
The other potential approach, he proposes, involves developing crop varieties that are less sensitive to CO2 levels. This could possibly be achieved by bio-fortifying grains with increased amounts of iron and zinc, or undertaking aggressive global mineral supplementation programs.
Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, cautions about the seriousness of this situation, emphasizing the prominent roles iron and zinc play in our health. “Iron is essential for the effective production of red blood cells which are vital for delivering oxygen to the body’s tissues. A deficiency can lead to anemia, resulting in fatigue and a poor quality of life. Zinc, on the other hand, is crucial for a functioning immune system. Zinc deficiency hinders the body’s ability to fight off infections and heal wounds.” She concurs with the study’s assertion on the gravity of the situation, admitting, “clearly, we have a major problem.”
For more insights on food and the environment, you may want to visit the Stanford University Center on Food Security and the Environment.