Among the myriad impacts climate change is having on the world, one in particular may come as a surprise: heightened atmospheric CO2 levels might be adversely affecting the nutritional quality of the food you eat. As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to increase, you could end up eating more sugar and less of important minerals such as zinc, magnesium and calcium — without even realizing it. Those effects could also be reverberating up the food chain and altering ecosystems in as yet poorly understood ways.
For plants, a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide actually boosts productivity by stimulating photosynthesis. They make more carbohydrate and grow larger — seemingly a good thing. But because other nutrients don’t increase and can’t keep pace with the augmented carbohydrate, this potential boon to our food supply isn’t all that it seems: plants end up having a higher carbohydrate to protein ratio, and relatively lower concentrations of minerals.
Put simply: atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as a sort of fertilizer to grow bigger, leafier plants, but those larger broccolis and lettuces actually contain less nutritional value per portion than their predecessors grown in the preindustrial, pre-fossil fuel world.
And that could be a problem for the world’s already malnourished people, for bees seeking protein-rich pollen so they can safely overwinter, and for ecosystems that could be thrown out of balance by changes in plant nutrition.
The human implications of these ongoing changes to our food supply came under the spotlight in April when the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) published a major report on the impact of climate change on human health. One of its key findings was that rising carbon dioxide will reduce the nutritional quality of food.
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Rice fields in Kashmir, India. Staple crops such as rice and wheat are forecast to become less nutritious as a result of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Photo courtesy of sandeepachetan.com travel photography on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license