What is Rising CO2 in Our Atmosphere Doing to Our Food?

Research is starting to build what shows to be a disturbing trend in the nutritional quality of our food. As carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are rising in our atmosphere, the amount of minerals and proteins in plants are dropping. And this could have far-reaching effects on human health and the health of our planet.

A Silent Danger of Climate Change

Throughout the world, humans rely on plants as a primary source of carbohydrates, minerals, protein and vitamins. Without high-quality plant foods, the survival of our species would be essentially impossible. In fact, rice and wheat alone provide over 40 percent of calories that humans eat.

Plants work their nutritional magic through photosynthesis, which is the process of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and using it to make sugars. These sugars help plants grow, but they also provide essential carbohydrates when eaten by humans and other animals.

When exposed to higher amounts of CO2, plants naturally increase their production of carbohydrates, which makes them grow faster and bigger. And plants have been increasing their growth as atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been rising since the start of the industrial revolution.

Until recently, it was believed this was a good thing because food crops have increased their yields. But recent research has shown a significant danger lurking behind this apparent benefit. Yields have been increasing, but the nutritional value of plants has been steadily decreasing since the start of global industrialization.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the earthís atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of CO2. In 2016, we reached over 400 parts per million, and scientists predict we will reach 550 parts per million in the next 50 years. In just a few short generations, weíve almost doubled the atmospheric CO2 levels with industrial activity.

What is this doing to our plants? A 2014 study looked at more than 15,000 samples of nearly 130 varieties of plants collected from experiments over the past three decades. Researchers found that the overall concentration of 25 essential minerals like magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc and iron had dropped by an average of 8 percent. Protein content had also dropped. Whereas, the amount of digestible carbohydrates had increased by 10 to 45 percent.

And this wasnít isolated to only food crops. The results were the same for wild plants, and in all geographical areas, from temperate to tropical regions.

How Could This Affect Human Health?

Many people already donít eat enough fruit, vegetables, beans and other nutritious plant-based foods. This is due to lack of availability in some parts of the world, as well as the spread of commercial junk foods that tend to have poor nutritional value.

Whatís known as ďhidden hungerĒ is currently the worldís most widespread nutritional disorder. Hidden hunger refers to very poorly diversified diets that meet a personís caloric needs, but not their nutritional needs.

For example, every third person in the world is at risk for zinc deficiency, which can lead to stunted growth, compromised immunity and child mortality. Iron deficiency also affects at least 2 billion people today, and itís the primary cause of anemia that leads to maternal mortality. Thereís even evidence that nutrient deficiency may be linked to obesity. Health crises like these will only be made worse by the reduction in plant nutrition.

An increase in protein deficiency is another threat. Researchers estimate that certain crops, such as rice and wheat, may experience up to 15 percent decreases in protein content over the next 50 years due to increasing CO2 levels. This could put an additional 148 million people at risk of protein deficiency.

The vitamin content of plants is also a concern. Research has not yet looked into how vitamins are affected by CO2, but itís likely that vitamin concentrations in plants are also decreasing.

Animal-based foods are most likely affected as well. Animals grown for meat are largely plant-eaters, so theyíre receiving less nutrients as plants become depleted. This could reduce the nutritive value of their meat, as well as their milk and eggs.

In addition, we already know that a high dietary sugar intake can increase your risk of certain diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Will the increasing amounts of carbohydrates in plants add to this risk? Perhaps only time will tell.

Are Global Ecosystems at Risk?

Plants are the basis of food chains for the vast majority of life on this planet. As the nutritional quality of plants decreases, so will the potential health of ecosystems.

An example is a 2016 study that looked at the effect of rising CO2 on wild pollen. Researchers examined hundreds of samples of pollen from Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum that had been collected from 1842 to 2014. They also grew a 2-year trial of goldenrod that they exposed to varying levels of CO2.

Goldenrod is a common food source for North American native bees and honeybees. Goldenrod blooms in late summer, so itís an important late-season source of pollen that bees stock up on for winter survival.

The study found that elevated atmospheric CO2 decreases the protein concentration in pollen. The study didnít look at minerals or vitamins in pollen, but these could also be dropping.

Could this reduction in pollen quality be contributing to the global collapse of bees? And what other species will be affected by the deteriorating nutrition in plants? This could easily affect life from soil microbes to predators at the top of the food chain. The long-term impact on global ecosystems could be devastating, especially when combined with other environmental changes brought on by climate change.

What’s the Best Way to Keep Yourself Healthy?

Skip the junk

Now itís more important than ever to eat whole, nutrient-dense foods and do your best to cut any junk foods out of your diet. These only provide empty calories and adds to hidden hunger problems.

Choose organic when itís available

Organic produce is proven to contain higher levels of antioxidants and micronutrients than traditionally grown crops.

Grow your own if possible

You can make sure your soil is amended with lots of organic matter and as much nutrition as possible to pass on to your plants.

Support your local pollinators

Create an oasis for pollinators in your backyard. As pollen quality reduces, any help you can give pollinators will go a long way. Promoting the health of pollinators will also support food crops grown for human consumption. Itís a win-win situation.

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72 comments

Anna R
Anna R4 days ago

Thank you

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Danii P
Danii P7 days ago

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Liza M
Liza M9 days ago

Many thanks.

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Mike R
Mike R11 days ago

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Jerome S
Jerome S11 days ago

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Jerome S
Jerome S11 days ago

thanks

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Danii P
Danii P11 days ago

Thank you

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven11 days ago

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven11 days ago

thanks for sharing

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Mike R
Mike R13 days ago

Thanks

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