We know all about increasing CO2’s effect on the climate and oceans, but new research finds that it could have a huge impact on the nutritional value of our food as well.
Our editor here at Eat.Drink…Better., Becky Striepe, passed this story on to me as a potential follow-up to my article last week on the massive decline in the nutritional value of our food in the last 50 years or so. I had never heard anything of the following beforehand (but I assume that is because this is very new research).
A new study published in the journal Science on May 14 finds that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere could have a great negative effect on the nutritional value of the world’s crops.
The scientists from the University of California-Davis who conducted the study found that increased CO2 could reduce the protein content of crops by as much as 20%.
The reason given is that increased levels of CO2 interfere with plants’ abilities to take up nitrate and transform it into organic compounds, such as protein.
The problem with this being that “most crop plants … use nitrate as their main form of nitrogen,” as Arnold Bloom, lead author of the study says.
Testing two common forms of soil nitrogen, nitrate and ammonium, on wheat plants exposed to elevated levels of CO2, the scientists found that the wheat plants had a reduced ability to produce proteins.
20% Decrease in Nutritional Value of Foods Could Occur in 20-50 Years
The researchers say that if new fertilizers are not produced to counteract this response (and CO2 levels increase as predicted in the next 20-50 years), this 20% decrease could occur on a great scale in the coming decades.
“Wheat grain that has been exposed to conditions that we expect in the next few decades declines about 20 percent,” says Bloom.
Although CO2 is “food” for plants and increases in CO2 help them to grow at early stages, researchers have found that effect diminishes as the plants acclimate to the higher CO2 levels. Bloom’s new study may illuminate for the first time that “the inhibition of nitrate assimilation may be the reason why plants do not thrive in CO2-rich environments as expected.”
Importantly, Gerald Nelson, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute in the United States says that this new study “reinforces the point that we cannot count on CO2 fertilisation to offset the negative productivity effects of climate change on agriculture.”
Given that this is a relatively new topic of study, I’m sure more work needs to be done to understand these relationships and confirm these effects, but leading scientists in this field seems pretty confident of the accuracy of these new findings and our need to act on them now.
To do your part, remember, eating vegetarian or vegan, eating organic foods, and reducing your CO2 footprint in other ways (i.e. by driving less or not at all and by switching to clean energy like solar – alternative solar energy) are the biggest things you can do.
Image Credit: Bern@t via flickr/CC license