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As Climate Changes, So Does Quality Of Food 

Plants are absorbing more carbon dioxide from the air, increasing both the process of photosynthesis and levels of glucose found in their products.

Evidence that crops are yielding lower nutrition densities has been around for years, and widely attributed to the varieties farmers are choosing to grow. But a mathematician and a team of biologists have other ideas about why there are fewer nutrients in our food.

Rising carbon dioxide levels are making veggies and grains less nutritious – and according to a new Politico article, few people seem to know it’s happening.

“To say that it’s little known that key crops are getting less nutritious due to rising CO2 is an understatement,” reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich writes. “It is simply not discussed in the agriculture, public health, or nutrition communities. At all.”

While evidence that crops are yielding lower nutrition densities has been around for years, it has widely been attributed to the varieties farmers are choosing to grow.

Enter mathematician Irkali Loladze and a team of biologists at Arizona State University. They manipulated algae’s growth with more sunlight, then studied the relationship between algae and zooplankton. It was then that they began to suspect climate change as a contributor to lower nutrition density.

While the algae grew faster and more plentiful with more sunlight, the zooplankton that fed on it still struggled to survive, because the faster-growing algae contained fewer nutrients than the normal-growing algae. Not only were those nutrients not present, they had been replaced by sugar, making it what Loladze and his colleagues called “junk-food algae.”

Though plants like corn, soybeans, and various other staple crops aren’t getting more sunlight, they are getting more carbon dioxide by absorbing it from the air. More carbon dioxide increases photosynthesis, which creates more glucose – and that glucose replaces some of the plants’ other nutrients, like protein, iron, and zinc.

What this means for humans is only just starting to be investigated. The Politico article detailed its conversations about the topic with high-profile nutrition and climate researchers, who generally seemed skeptical before reading Loladze’s research, but changed their minds about its possibilities after reading his papers.

Evich also points out the obstacles in the path of researching the effects of carbon dioxide on food – including the small likelihood of obtaining entire fields for laboratory work, the slow pace of the research, and a political environment where climate change has yet to be acknowledged as fact.

Read More:

  • The great nutrient collapse (Politico)
  • Briefly: Unhealth Food (Grist)
Taylor Killough

Taylor Killough has degrees anthropology and journalism. She has worked with the oral history project StoryCorps. A nomad at heart, she recently returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where's she's excited to have her own kitchen and garden again.

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