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High CO2 Makes Crops Less Nutritious

According to a new landmark study from Harvard, dangerously low levels of nutrients in foods are expected in just a few decades if carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rise as predicted. The study is the first to prove that increasing CO2 levels rob certain crop staples of zinc and iron. An estimated two billion people already suffer from zinc and iron deficiencies, resulting in a loss of 63 million life years annually from malnutrition. The extensive study demonstrates the reduction in these nutrients represents the most significant health threat ever shown to be associated with climate change.

Scientists looked at 41 different cultivars of six different food crops grown in seven locations on three different continents. Researchers found that the important grains and legumes studied lost between 5 and 10 percent of iron and zinc; grains lost between 5 and 10 percent protein. The largest was a 9.3 percent drop in the zinc level in wheat. They also found reduced levels of protein in wheat, rice, and peas, but not in soybeans. Some rice cultivars were more affected by increases in CO2 than others, meaning traditional breeding could be a way to develop varieties that can better deal with an increase in greenhouse gases.

Zinc deficiency is particularly harmful to children. When levels drop too low, a child's immune systems doesn't work properly, making her more at risk of dying from infectious diseases. For iron, low levels mean anemia, reductions in IQ, and decreased work productivity.

"The nutritional affects themselves will be quite modest in Americans because they tend to eat foods that are often fortified, and a fair amount of meat and seafood, which are rich in iron and zinc," notes the lead study author Samuel Myers, MD, MPH, research scientist in the department of environmental health at Harvard School of Public Health. "But from that standpoint, it's more about Americans living in a larger world where hundreds of millions are at risk of nutritional deficiencies and increased risk of disease as a result of our own carbon dioxide emissions," Dr Myers adds.

Researchers aren't certain exactly why CO2 seems to zap foods of these important nutrients, but one theory is that the gas causes the foods to be overrun with starchy carbohydrates. Dr. Myers states more research is needed to determine the mechanism.