harvesting rice crop nutrient climate change malnutrition decline health food
Image Credit: Frank Douwes (CC BY 2.0 flickr)

There’s a thief about. Skulking in the forests and in the and fields. Quietly taking from our food valuable nutrients that we depend on. Lowering our ability to feed our families and raise healthy children, this theft is occurring in a way we don’t fully understand.

It’s a theft that Irakli Loladze, a mathematical biologist, has spent the better part of his career investigating. Back in 1998, Loladze was working in a lab conducting what should have been a simple experiment on plankton. His team wanted to know what factors could increase the population of zooplankton; microscopic organisms that feed on algae and serve as prey for a large number of species in aquatic food webs.

In what should have been a simple cause and effect, the lab’s researchers increased the amount of light available to the algae in the zooplankton’s tank. As expected, increasing the light meant more algae. This in turn was expected to boost zooplankton numbers.

Except it didn’t. Quite the opposite. Zooplankton numbers dropped. There was more food available to them, yet their population was wilting. It was a source of confusion in the lab until researchers examined the algae. They found that it’s quality was significantly worse than before. The algae had used the increased light to create more sugars for building their bodies, but the amounts of protein and other nutrients vital to the zooplankton hadn’t kept pace.

In effect, the zooplankton had been eating a bunch of sugary junk food.

That outcome caused Loladze and other researchers to worry about plant species all over the world. They started to find that it’s not just algae that suffers this nutrient degradation. In experiments where grasses were given supplemental CO2, they grew faster with decreased quality for the animals that feed on them. The same effect was seen when researchers warmed the soil where these grasses grow.

Historically speaking, researchers have found that the amount of protein in goldenrod pollen, a critical food for wild bees, has decreased by a third since the industrial revolution. For an important pollinator species trying to survive in an ever-shifting climate, that’s a serious threat.

Further, the quality of grasses available for grazing by wild and domesticated animals alike has also been falling. While the magnitude of this issue for ranchers and rangeland managers remains unclear, it certainty has them worried.

Perhaps most startlingly of all, this effect is being seen in plants that we humans rely on for food. Staple crops like wheat, barley, rice, and potatoes are all seeing nutrient levels fall. Calcium, potassium, zinc, and iron have all been noted on the decline along with protein.

The nutrient thief in question is climate change. The factors that have been identified in the flagging of our food’s nutritional quality, increasing CO2 and warmer soils, are rooted in the climate crisis. When this observation is paired with other climate impacts like less stable seasons, more frequent heat waves, detrimental changes in precipitation patterns, and the spread of invasive pests, it adds up to an increasingly concerning picture for our food security.

This cause and effect does feel counter intuitive. In fact, the “benefits” to plants of rising emissions has been used by climate deniers in the past. More CO2, they argued, would be beneficial because it would lead to greater crop yields. “A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth,” Republican Lemar Smith of Texas once wrote. “This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food.” His claims of greater food volume hold true in experiments, but a large and growing body of evidence demonstrate that our food’s quality is actually getting worse.

This decline in quality is of particular concern for the developing world where protein deficiency is a serious problem. You may not know it, but you are likely familiar with the consequences of a diet lacking in protein. If you can recall pictures of young ones with bloated bellies frequently used by international aid charities, you’re familiar with this type of malnutrition. Diets that are adequate in calorie consumption but cannot meet healthy levels of protein lead to a condition called Kwashiorkor. While not necessarily lacking in food volume, lack of quality protein sees people with this condition develop swollen abdomens and damaged livers. As plant-based protein declines, cases of this type of malnutrition are expected to rise.

Beyond protein, the loss of other nutrients like zinc and iron pose unique threats to vulnerable populations as well. Zinc is especially important in the health of both expectant mothers and young children. A team from Harvard found that “without enough [zinc], there is increased risk of premature delivery, reduced growth and weight gain in young children, and decreased immune function.” For its part, a lack of access to dietary iron is linked to higher rates of child mortality due to anemia. It is estimated that the deaths of 1.8 million children between the ages of one month to five years could be avoided every year by increasing dietary iron.

Instead, all these nutrients are on the decline.

This poses a unique Environmental Justice problem. While those of us in the developed world contribute the most to the climate crisis, those in the developing world find themselves dealing with the worst consequences. Americans and Europeans may look at this issue and see some added difficulty in cultivating beef, but others are facing a much more threatening crisis; one that they contribute minimally to.

Speaking of beef, there is also concern that decreases in plant-based proteins may hamper efforts to reduce the amount of meat consumed in western diets. As others have noted, the process of meat production is not exactly efficient in terms of land use or emissions per calorie produced. Accordingly, one strategy for reducing emissions is convincing people to consume more plant-based protein sources. This nutrient degradation directly threatens that switch.

But after all of this, there are still many questions about the theft of these nutrients left unanswered. Researchers stress that we do not know nearly enough about the scope and magnitude of this problem to make solid recommendations for change beyond halting our emissions. That’s the most terrifying part of all of this. Nutrient loss joins a slate of poorly understood issues that are arising from our failure to adequately address climate change. In the meantime, our inaction is taking food quality from families in the world’s most vulnerable places when food access is already an issue. Even for us in the developed world, food security and biodiversity are being threatened. Simply put, climate change is robbing our food of its nutritional quality, and we have no idea how bad it will get.


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