BY CLARE HOWARD
Yet another sign of global climate change is no further away than your morning bowl of cereal.
As the world continues to burn fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, scientists are linking increasing levels of C02 with declining levels of nutrients in food.
Scientists have found 6 percent less protein in wheat as well as measurable declines in calcium, potassium, zinc and iron.
A growing body of research is showing that as atmospheric C02 levels rise, a wide range of plants have lower amounts of protein and other nutrients. It appears C02 levels stimulate production of carbohydrates and decrease production of protein, minerals and vitamins.
“This adds to other phenomena already contributing to declining nutrients in plants,” said Dr. Herman Brockman, distinguished professor emeritus of genetics at Illinois State University, referring to documented nutritional declines due to poor soil health and plants selectively bred not for nutrition but for surviving long shipping distances, uniformity of size, color and long shelf life.
“It makes instant sense to me that increasing C02 will change nutrition,” he said, explaining that plants in the presence of light combine C02 in the air and water from the soil in a process called photosynthesis.
A key product of this is glucose, a carbohydrate. The process can be revved up with more light or more C02 and then the process produces more carbohydrates. When fruits and vegetables have more carbohydrates, more sugars and less nutrition, that could contribute to elevated rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease often linked to increased consumption of junk food.
“Certainly the public should be made aware of this. It is more difficult to explain (than other factors that harm nutrition),” Brockman said.
The public health risk of increasing C02 levels and declining nutrition is greater in underdeveloped countries already dealing with food shortages.
“People in the United States have such a varied diet that’s high in protein, but in three-fourths of the world people barely have enough to survive,” said Mike Miller, supervisor of environmental and interpretive services with the Peoria Park District.
He called the growing body of research connecting increasing levels of C02 with declining nutrients in food “alarming” and “scary.” Miller cited a study showing that goldenrod pollen, a major source of nutrients for bees going into winter, has lost one-third of its protein since the start of the industrial revolution.
This protein deficit could be a contributing factor to declines in immunity and vulnerabilities that lead to colony bee collapse. If someone already on a starvation diet loses one third of the nutrients in food, immunity crashes and survival becomes more tenuous, Miller said.
Some people will suggest a multiple vitamin, he said, but “what does that do besides make expensive urine?”
“Will the system adapt, or will we approach a major tipping point toward world extinction? We have a responsibility to do better than this.”
As C02 levels rise due to industrialization and global climate change, levels of protein, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium and other nutrients have declined by, on average, 8 percent. That decline could increase because C02 is continuing to increase.
Before the industrial revolution, levels of C02 in the atmosphere were about 280 parts per million. Today, that’s more like 400 parts per million and expected to increase to 550 by 2050.
Is there a tipping point when the nutritional value of food will crash?
One study, “Increasing C02 threatens human nutrition,” published in the journal Nature states that dietary deficiencies of zinc and iron are already a substantial global public health problem.
Dr. Sherri Morris, chairman of the biology department at Bradley University, speculates there could be a point at which increasing levels of C02 will not have increasing levels of nutrient declines.
“We haven’t gotten to that stabilization point yet,” she said, noting the connection between increasing C02 and declining nutrition has been the topic of research going back to 2008. While research results have been published in academic journals, little has appeared in general circulation publications.
The public policies that have allowed reliance on fossil fuels and industrial farming are deadly policies, Brockman said.
“Trump and his cabinet will kill 100,000 times more than the shooter in Las Vegas. A person can be shot with a bullet, but when increasing pollution of C02 in the air is allowed, people die an agonizing death from asthma,” Brockman said. “The poorest will suffer the most.
“We are on an unethical course. There is not enough money to deal with the enormous costs of climate change,” he said, noting that present public policy has put us on a path “doomed to some kind of collapse. Without plants, there is no oxygen and therefore no animals and no humans.”
Miller said, “We can’t chip away at the base of the food pyramid by one-third and expect all that depends on that base to survive.
“We have to quit voting people into office who deny science. We can’t keep hiring people from the fossil fuel industry to set public policy.”
He said scientists should be above politics, but we have scientists who are bought and paid for by coal, oil, fossil fuels and agribusiness industries.
“Who are the eco-terrorists now?” he asked.