Climate change effect on future of food’s nutrients

29th Jun 2018


It has long been known that climate change affects food production in the form of lower crop yields and shifting seasons, but a study recently published in Science Advances revealed that increased carbon dioxide may lead to less nutritious food altogether.

The study was conducted in China and Japan, reviewing 18 varieties of rice between 2010 and 2014. The results showed that levels of protein, iron, zinc, and many of the B vitamins decreased, but showed an overall increase in vitamin E. One of the scientists on the study suggested that the latter increase might be linked to the presence of nitrogen.

Many of the world’s poor already have a hard time acquiring nutrient-dense foods, and if what they are able to acquire is less nutritious, it could lead to greater susceptibility to disease. This problem will not only affect poorer nations; micronutrient deficiencies could affect the obese and diabetic as well.

Only a handful of studies over the past few decades have revealed the implications of climate change on the nutrition of food crops. The latest is the first to look at the impact of vitamins. A 2014 study published in the journal Nature studied grains and legumes and found that “C3 grains and legumes have lower concentrations of zinc and iron when grown under field conditions at the elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration predicted for the middle of this century.” C3 refers to many common grains and legumes and 95% of the earth’s plant species; they are a vital source of zinc and iron for people all around the world. Both the 2014 and 2018 studies recorded nutrient deficiencies correlated to CO2 increases.

“The phenomenon of crops being stripped of their high nutritional qualities due to environmental factors has become known as the “junk food effect,” according to DW (Deutsche Welle’s). It was previously thought that the lower levels of nutrition in basic foods were due to the prioritization of yields over nutritional quality, but climate change has been exposed as the likelier culprit.

Plants do, in fact, need carbon to grow, which is why the effect on nutrition surprised some scientists, who expected to see the benefits of the “CO2 fertilization effect.” Though carbon is necessary for plant growth, too much of something can adversely affect any living organism.
In the most recent study, some of the varieties of rice showed less change in nutrient content than others, leaving researchers confident that more resilient strains can be found or developed. Gene editing within crops to make them resistant to nutritional reduction amid carbon dioxide increases may be necessary, but environmentalists, wary of genetic modification, have reservations about such a proposal.
It may be hard to visualise that so many countries have problems feeding their people when in some Western nations, 40% of the food that people purchase goes to waste. Access to a variety of healthy foods is not a problem for the wealthier people in the world, ironically, those contributing the most to climate change. Yet for the world’s poor, who rely heavily on a few staple crops, any decrease in vitamins and minerals will have a measurable impact. Immune health is essential to stave off disease, and if basic nutrients like protein and iron are lacking from the point source of the crop, a public health crisis could ensue.

Genetic modification in plants has received mixed responses from many, with some claiming that they are more expensive to produce or may lead to unforeseen diseases in children, but in the scientific world, it seems to be the only way to tackle the crisis of climate change’s effect on food production. The population is expected to be 9.8 billion by 2050, and scientists are scrambling to find ways to adapt crops to some of the inevitable consequences of climate change.

We live in a time where we may have access to food, but we can no longer trust how nutritious it is. That, in itself, is enough of a reason to implore our politicians to do everything possible to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change in a measurable way.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, English Language Teacher, Environmental Columnist

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