Study reveals decline in food quality due to rising carbon dioxide levels in atmosphere

As warnings about climate change are becoming increasingly dire, scientists now believe that the quality of our food is at risk due to the spread of greenhouse gases.

Scientists at the University of California-Davis, carried out a wheat-field study and found that high levels of carbon dioxide prevents the conversion of nitrate into proteins in plants, according to an April 6 press release.

As a result of too much carbon dioxide, plants could become less and less nutritious and less ideal for human consumption. Further, as Boston University biology professor Richard Primack notes, an increase in temperatures could even begin to damage harvests themselves.

“The real danger is that if these conditions get just a little warmer, that agriculture could really be harmed very significantly,” he said. “… For example, in northern China, the drier conditions are already causing declines in crop yields particularly in places which are not irrigated.”

In the UC-Davis study, researchers observed wheat plants in Arizona, then performed laboratory tests to determine the protein production in varying levels of carbon dioxide that could exist over the next few decades.

“We have discovered in the laboratory that elevated CO2 inhibits the production of proteins in the shoots of most plants,” wrote Arnold Bloom, lead author of the study and UC-Davis professor, in an email. “Samples were taken of wheat plants growing in a field in Arizona where CO2 was released to simulate atmospheric conditions that are anticipated in the next few decades.”

The researchers found that wheat grown in conditions with elevated carbon dioxide converted less nitrate into protein than wheat grown under current levels of carbon dioxide.

In the press release, Bloom noted that the amount of protein in wheat plants could decline up to 3 percent over the next few decades and previous studies have shown that protein concentrations in wheat, rice and barley could drop by 8 percent in conditions of excess carbon dioxide.

The study’s results carry implications for the future of food production and consumption. Andrew Held, vice president of BU’s Environmental Student Organization, adds that this finding may mean pursuing new avenues to obtain protein.

“We’re going to be seeing more focus towards maybe genetically engineered food, probably trying to steal more protein in our diets other ways,” said Held, a College of Arts and Sciences sophomore. “… I imagine engineers will be able to find a way around this.”

ESO President Jatnna Garcia, a  College of Arts and Sciences senior, said other methods of acquiring protein from food could also create problems.

“There’s probably going to be a lot of soy production because protein will probably be taken out of soy, so that might also lead to an increase in deforestation just because you need more land to get all of this soy that you’re going to put into food,” she said.

Primack conducts similar research on the effects of climate change on flora and fauna in Massachusetts, and he said food quantity could become a more dire concern than food quality.

“Even though we should be concerned about the quality of our food, the much more significant issue is … the quantity of food as in particularly many areas of the Southwest United States … [and] plains of the United States, even in the areas of drier areas of, say, Brazil or Africa,” he said. “… Global trends aren’t going to be uniform for climate change. So it might be this one area sees this huge decline in protein whereas the Amazon Basin [differs].”

Bloom said the public could get involved to manage levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“You can support efforts to regulate CO2 emissions and support efforts to study the responses of plants to climate change,” Bloom wrote in an email. “As the public becomes more aware of environmental problems, they will insist on additional efforts to study and solve these problems.”

Garcia added that people often ignore such reports unless they are directly affected by the results.

“We’re good at not listening to scientists, which is really sad,” she said. “We don’t actually listen to them until it directly affects us. So I think it’s a good study to have. It’s good to see the results. It’s good for people to say that climate change is real and not just about getting warmer. It’s going to affect your diet, it’s going to affect your body and what nutrients you get.”

As for the future, Bloom mentions that he and his research team are already looking to develop plants that will resist such effects of rising carbon dioxide levels.

“We are beginning to breed crop plants that are less sensitive to the effects of rising CO2 on their protein content,” he said.

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