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Climate Change Robbing Food of Nutrients

Carbon dioxide strips nutrients out of wheat, rice, peas and other crops. (usda.gov)
Carbon dioxide strips nutrients out of wheat, rice, peas and other crops. (usda.gov)
August 7, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- A report that looks in depth at how climate change is robbing crops of nutrition says there will be more hungry people and more suffering due to vitamin deficiencies.

Samuel Myers, an environmental health researcher at Harvard's School of Public Health, conducted a study in 2014 that found higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are likely to reduce the protein, iron and zinc content of rice, wheat, peas and other foods. Myers has now taken that a step further, calculating through the year 2050 the number of people within each country that won't be getting enough nutrients.

He said the impact will be felt mostly by the poor.

"It's the wealthier people around the world who have the largest carbon footprints and the poorest people who are the most vulnerable top their effects,” Myers said. “And so there really is a social justice or equity element to this."

According to the report, more than 350 million children aged 1 to 5, and about 1 billion women of child bearing age live in countries where the amount of dietary iron is projected to fall by about 4 percent.

Myers said human activity is changing the structure and the function of many of our natural systems.

"Not just the climate system but fisheries, and oceans and land cover and fresh water systems, and as those changes become more and more profound around the world they're having very significant human health implications,” he said.

Myers called nutrient deficiencies deadly, and said this is something policy makers can't ignore.

"Deficiencies of iron and zinc and protein are already affecting almost 2 billion people around the world with very very large burdens of disease,” he said. "So this is a big public health problem today. It will be an even bigger problem in the future."

Myers said developing crop varieties with higher nutrient contents is one solution, but said there's no silver bullet to the issue. He said the most obvious answer is to drastically cut carbon pollution.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL