The world’s population hit a staggering 7.5 billion in April 2017. By 2100? It’s projected to hit an astounding 11 billion. It’s going to take a lot of food to feed that many people, which is why the news that nutrition levels are plummeting in food is even more concerning. Turns out climate change and nutrition are intricately linked.
Cutting edge calculations and an ensuing string of studies show how elevated carbon dioxide levels trigger a “junk food effect” in food. This means malnutrition could be one of the newest health effects of climate change.
What we’re putting into the atmosphere in the form of carbon pollution is impacting what’s happening on the ground. And what’s on our forks. Part of the irony here is that the same modern-day agriculture tactics hailed as critical for “feeding the world” actually create more climate change-triggering pollution compared to organic farming. Maybe it’s time for less GMOs and hormone-disrupting, neurotoxic pesticides and more holistic farming practices that work with nature, not against it.
There’s plenty of evidence to support this. In fact, according to a 30-year farm systems trial at Rodale Institute, organic farming uses 45 percent lass energy than “conventional” chemical farming. It also produces 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. (1)
Climate Change & Nutrition: Major Takeaways
In 2017, Politico posted a profile on veteran researcher Irakli Loladz, PhD, a mathematical biologist who discovered the junk food effect while at Arizona State University years ago.
“Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising. We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history ― [an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.” ―Irakli Loladz told Politico
Here are some of the major findings he and other researchers have uncovered in the ensuing 17 years, as outlined in Politico and other published research:
- As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, plant quality declines.
- The surge in this greenhouse gas triggers changes in the composition of plants’ leaves, stems, roots, fruits and tubers. (2)
- CO2 speeds up growth and promotes the “junk food effect” in crops.
- The natural sugar-to-nutrient ratio is disrupted.
- Increased CO2 increases plants’ carbohydrate content but diminishes other vital nutrient levels.
- Higher levels of CO2 causes lower levels of zinc, iron, calcium and potassium in 95 percent of plants, including crop staples like wheat, barley, potatoes and rice.
- In our lifetimes, projected CO2 emissions could lead to an 8 percent drop in mineral content, on average; protein content in rice could drop 8 percent and 6 percent in wheat
- Between 1950 and 1999, riboflavin content in crops dropped 38 percent. (3)
- Increased carbon pollution doesn’t just impact humans. United States Department of Agriculture researcher Lewis Ziska found pollen is losing it’s nutritious luster, too. This means greenhouse gas emissions could be partially to blame for plummeting honeybee numbers, too. (4)
- Atmospheric carbon dioxide increased 22 percent since 1960
- That increase in carbon dioxide also fuels more potent urushiol oil in poison ivy, too. (5)
Climate Change: What You Can Do
So what can we possibly do about such a huge problem? Of course, we’ll need major collaboration between world governments, businesses and food producers to build a permaculture-centric, low-emission food system. But there are meaningful, high-impact actions you can start taking now. Cumulatively, these actions can lead to significant reductions in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Final Thoughts on Climate Change and Nutrition: The Junk Food Effect
- Increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere causes most plants to grow faster and create more sugar and lower levels of key nutrients.
- Levels of calcium, potassium, zinc and iron are found in lower levels as carbon dioxide rises.
- This change in plants is causing more carbohydrate-rich foods.
- In our lifetimes, we could see an 8 percent drop in minerals and 6 percent drop in protein in food staple crops.
- As more countries shift toward clean energy like wind, solar and geothermal, there are lots of high-impact, low-emissions things you can do on a personal level that can make a big difference.