Is climate change turning our food to junk?

SCARY STUFF: by 2050, some 150 million people could be at risk of protein deficiency, leading to malnutrition and premature death, due to a catastrophic decline in protein in rice crops

Roz Paterson looks at some worrying new research • One thing we can all agree on—and that includes even the most right-wing, climate-change sceptical, oil-drunk zealot—is that there is more carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere now than at any other time in human history.

And, as plants need CO2 to photosynthesise, the more CO2 the better, right? Bigger crops, right? More food, right? Actually, wrong.

One of the most disquieting findings in a strand of scientific research so obscure we don’t even really have a name for it yet—kind of maths meets agriculture via climatey stuff—is that the crops we are growing may be turning to junk, thanks to the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

By junk, we’re talking about significant depletions in protein, zinc, calcium and other essential nutrients, enough to generate serious and worrisome human health crises somewhere not too far down the line.

For instance, just to scare you, by 2050, some 150 million people could be at risk of protein deficiency, leading to malnutrition and premature death, due to a catastrophic decline in protein in rice crops.

You’ve never heard about this before? You’re not the only one. Irakle Loladze, a mathematician straying into the realms of biology, recently published a paper on this very matter, with little support in terms of grants (none of the grant-funders had an inkling what he was talking about), and even less research to draw on, other than a 1997 study documenting the crash in nutrients in rice.

He found that, the more CO2, the more sugars such as glucose a plant will produce—at the expense of the nutrients that human beings need to thrive, including dietary iron and zinc.

It has already been established that the food we eat has been getting increasingly less nutritious over the last half-century. We assumed it was a simple case of bigger yield = more diluted nutritional content.

A study in 2004 seemed to suggest this may not be the case, as it found that garden crops (less likely to be treated with industrial fertilisers, so less likely to be the bumper-sized produce seen in supermarkets) had also experienced a nutritional decline since the 1950s.

We assumed this was down to the increasingly narrow range of varieties favoured. Surely a reintroduction of heritage strains would solve this problem? Loladze’s findings suggest not. It’s the atmosphere, stupid.

Before the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels in our atmosphere were around 280 parts per million (ppm). We’ve now topped 400ppm, and predicted to reach 550ppm within 50 years.

It’s a crisis in the making. For those who will starve to death for lack of nutrients, and for those who will die of heart disease and diabetes through the over-abundance of carbohydrates in food they thought was good for them.

Yet it is going under the radar of most research bodies, due to a dearth of data and the fact that it is an emerging field, one which doesn’t fit neatly into any established academic discipline.

Researcher Kristie Ebi acknowledges: “It’s a hidden issue. The fact that my bread doesn’t have the micro-nutrients it did 20 years ago—how would you know?”

Some small shoots of research are pushing through, but time is of the essence. As well as working to mitigate climate change, we must work to adapt to the climate change that is already happening.

This clearly now includes retooling crops to compensate for the nutritional collapse these fledgling studies have identified. It means grant money directed towards issues for the common good rather than commercial interest, and disciplines working together and sharing information.

A footnote—a study was made of Goldenrod, a non-cultivated weed, whose pollen is important to bees preparing to go into winter.

As a wild plant, it is relatively unaffected by fertilisers or human interference in terms of varieties. And there are samples dating back to 1842 in the Smithsonian Institute.

Researchers found that protein content has reduced by one third since then, which may help to explain the disastrous decline in bee populations, amongst other things.

• This article is adapted from an original by Helena Bottemiller Evich, published in Politico in September 2017

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