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Increasing CO2 Threatens Human Nutrition

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Center faculty member Sam Myers is the lead author of this published study in Nature, which focuses on how rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are making crops less nutritious.

Dietary deficiencies of zinc and iron are a substantial global public health problem. An estimated two billion people suffer these deficiencies, causing a loss of 63  million life-years annually. Most of these people depend on C3 grains and legumes as their primary dietary source of zinc and iron.

Here we report that C3 grains and legumes have lower concentrations of zinc and iron when grown under field conditions at the elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration predicted for the middle of this century. Breeding for decreased sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 concentration could partly address these new challenges to global health.

The ongoing rise in CO2 levels is one of the most significant consequences of human activity on the planet. While the effects of climate change are often discussed in terms of extreme weather events and rising sea levels, there is another, less obvious threat that is equally concerning: the impact of increasing CO2 levels on human nutrition.

The Link Between CO2 and the Nutritional Value of Crops

It may come as a surprise, but rising levels of atmospheric CO2 are causing a decline in the nutritional quality of crops. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, increased CO2 levels cause plants to grow faster, which means that they have less time to absorb nutrients from the soil. Secondly, CO2 acts as a natural fertilizer, which means that plants produce more carbohydrates at the expense of other nutrients.

These effects are most pronounced in staple crops such as rice, wheat, and maize, which form the basis of many people's diets around the world. Researchers estimate that the nutritional quality of these crops has declined by up to 10% in the past few decades due to rising CO2 levels.

The Impact of Climate Change on the Nutritional Value of Food

This decline in nutritional quality is a significant concern for human health, as it means that people are getting fewer of the essential vitamins and minerals that they need to stay healthy. This is particularly worrying in areas where people already suffer from malnutrition or rely heavily on these staple crops as their primary source of food.

Furthermore, the decline in nutritional quality is likely to have long-term consequences for human health. A lack of essential vitamins and minerals can lead to a range of health problems, including weakened immune systems, stunted growth, and cognitive impairment.

Rising CO2 Levels and Their Impacts on Human Health

While the effects of rising CO2 levels on crops and human nutrition are concerning, it is also worth noting that high levels of CO2 can have direct impacts on human health. When we breathe in air that contains high levels of CO2, it can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Long-term exposure to high levels of CO2 can also lead to chronic respiratory problems and other health issues.

In addition to these direct health impacts, the effects of rising CO2 levels on the environment could also have significant consequences for human health. For example, changes in weather patterns and the spread of new diseases could have far-reaching impacts on human populations.

How CO2 Emissions are Affecting the Nutrient Quality of Our Food

So, what can we do to address this issue? One obvious solution is to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the rate of climate change. This will not only help to protect human health but will also have a range of other benefits, including reducing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

In addition to reducing our carbon emissions, there are other steps that we can take to mitigate the impact of rising CO2 levels on crop nutrient quality. For example, researchers are exploring ways to breed crops that are more resistant to the effects of high CO2 levels, or that can absorb nutrients more efficiently. Another strategy is to adjust agricultural practices, such as using different fertilizers or adjusting irrigation methods, to help crops cope with the effects of high CO2 levels.

Research into the impact of CO2 on crop nutrient quality is ongoing, and there is still much to learn about the long-term consequences of this phenomenon. However, it is clear that rising CO2 levels pose a significant threat to human health and nutrition, and urgent action is needed to address this issue.

In conclusion, the link between increasing CO2 levels and human nutrition is an issue of great concern. Rising CO2 levels are causing a decline in the nutritional quality of crops, which could have significant long-term consequences for human health. Furthermore, high levels of CO2 can have direct impacts on human health, and changes to the environment could lead to the spread of new diseases or other health impacts. Urgent action is needed to reduce our carbon emissions and address this issue, and ongoing research is needed to better understand the impacts of rising CO2 levels on human nutrition and health.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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