- Environmental Health -

How Climate Change Leads to Nutrient Decline

Global warming is reducing nutrients in wheat, rice, beans, and more.

man's hand brushing against wheat

Global warming often raises fears of fires and hurricanes rather than concerns about fields of wheat. But a 2018 study published in Nature shows that climate change is also reducing nutrient levels in food crops, including wheat, rice, beans, and more — which may lead to worldwide nutritional deficiencies as soon as 2050.

Among the study’s projections are these numbers:

  • 122 million people will lack sufficient protein.
  • 175 million people are expected to be deficient in zinc.
  • 1.4 billion women and children under the age of 5 will lose an additional 4 percent or more of their iron intake, levels that mean increased risk for iron-deficiency anemia and stunted growth.

Increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere affects plant growth as well as weather patterns. Earlier tests conducted by the study’s lead researcher, Sam Myers, MD, suggest that exposing food crops to higher CO2 levels measurably reduces iron and zinc content and decreases the protein content in grains. Legumes were less affected.

The study compared the daily intake of 225 foods in 152 countries and found that regions with the least dietary diversity, including South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, were the most vulnerable to these changes. Places where people eat rice daily, for example, will be more affected by the nutrient content of that grain than areas where rice is part of a diverse diet with plenty of vegetables and protein.

As with most things related to climate change, there is no magic wand to fix it. But the international research community now has information to address the coming problem. The only present deficiency is one of political will among government leaders in less-affected countries — and that too, can change. (To learn more about how our eating habits can help heal the planet, read “10 Steps to Climate-Friendly Eating.”)

This originally appeared as “Climate Change = Nutrient Decline” in the March 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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