In September 2017, a Politico article put climate change into a less abstract, and more personal context: the food we eat. This article appeared around the same time as two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, razed southern Texas, Florida, and practically every island in the Caribbean. The unusual speed, length, and intensity of the hurricanes awakened many Americans that climate change is not a distant possibility but is already here.
The hurricanes were not similarly awakening for some. The US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator then, Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, accused those bringing up climate change as a cause of the hurricanes of being “very insensitive” for diverting public attention from hurricane relief. Reading this crazy comment, I remember wondering if Pruitt had seen the Politico article, and then wondering what he had for dinner that evening. I bring up dinner not because I am interested in what Pruitt eats (I don’t) but because the Politico article was about the work of a scientist showing that critical nutrients in plants are declining due to exposure to increasingly higher levels of CO2 in the air. The scientist was Dr. Irakli Loladze, currently teaching at Bryan College of Health Sciences in Nebraska. The Politico article was about his 2014 study.
Dr. Loladze has been writing on the ecology and chemistry nexus with a mathematician’s eye since 2001, starting with his PhD dissertation from Arizona State University. In 2002 he conducted the first major meta-study on the link between plant chemistry and rising CO2 levels and published the results in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The study was picked up by Grist and Nature, two publications read more widely and by people who are not necessarily scientists.
A bit of extra exposure to CO2 used to be considered positively because it made plants grow bigger. But in the 1980s, scientists started noticing some not so positive effects of rising carbon levels on plants. Studies conducted since then have been showing significant decreases in plant micronutrients linked to higher atmospheric carbon.
A 2014 meta-study by a group of 20 scientists showed lower levels of zinc, iron, and protein in grains that are critical for millions of people, such as wheat and rice. In studies simulating conditions similar to what scientists predict for 2050 (that is atmospheric CO2 levels of 540-580 ppm), wheat contained 9% less zinc, 5% less iron, and 6% less protein. Figures for rice were 3% less zinc, 5% less iron and 8% less protein. Their carbohydrate levels had increased proportional to what was missing.
Wheat and rice are nutritionally critical for more than half the world. In places where consumption of meat and fish are limited, or non-existent, less protein in staple foods like rice and wheat means less development, less growth, less health, less resilience, less of everything that makes basic human well-being possible.
We have known since the 1970s that the CO2 levels are rising and that this is linked to human activities. The NASA scientist James Hansen briefed the US Senate in 1988 about the greenhouse effect, and its implications for the planet’s climate. The international community has produced a convention on climate change in 1992. We have gone through thousands of hours of international negotiations and more than two dozen meetings of the Conference of the Parties (of the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol). Besides the scientists and the governments, tens of thousands of non-governmental organizations, community groups, student organizations, associations of mayors, collectives of workers, and alliances of businesses have been active and vocal supporters of international and national action to combat climate change, many calling it an existential threat.
In all this activity hardly anyone besides the scientists involved seem to have noticed the effect of higher CO2 levels on the essential nutrients in plants. Meanwhile, carbon levels reached 415 parts per million in 2019, up from from 350 ppm in the 1980s. What we are eating, even if organically grown, is already less nutritious and will get even less so. Our greed for more money, more profits, and for constant growth is converting nature into a fast food factory!