Rising Emissions Are Robbing Us of Nutrients

Yves here. Yet another basis for not trusting your food. Those big bad emissions are sucking the life out of it! I know this is a very big deal, but I can see this news mapping into diet neurosis and launching yet more healthy diet fads among the well off.

By Nathanael Johnson (@savortooth on Twitter), Grist’s senior writer and the author of two books. Originally published at Grist

It’s widely known that burning fossil fuels leads to all kinds of disastrous things: Worsening air pollution, acidic oceans, and flooding. But not many people know that the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is making our food more sugary and less nutritious.

A new study in Lancet Planetary Health projects that the combined effects of climate change parching crops and the decreased nutritional value of the food those crops produce would wipe out significant efforts to combat malnourishment around the world. Nutrient deficiencies cause to 2.2 million deaths every year among children under the age of five.

There are lots of efforts underway to prevent those deaths: People are adding vitamins to processed foods, breeding better crops, and working to make nutrients available to more people. That work is saving lives, but the way we are altering our atmosphere is making it harder. This study suggests that the human diet of 2050 would have 19.5 percent less protein, 14.4 percent less iron, and 14.6 percent less zinc than we’d have in the absence of climate change and increased CO2 in the air.

That means millions more deaths and disabilities that could have been prevented.

“The size of the problem is staggering,” said Kristie Ebi, a professor of global health at the University of Washington who was not involved with this paper. “This is likely the largest impact on health from rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

The latest study takes recent research on how rising concentration of carbon dioxide saps nutrition from food, and projects their findings forward. Plants convert the additional CO2 in the air into more sugar. That means plants grow faster, without accumulating as much iron, zinc, protein, and other nutrients along the way.

“Particularly for the poor, who eat more starch because it’s cheaper, the quality of food matters enormously,” Ebi said.

Researchers have only recently recognized this lurking threat subtly altering our food, and not everyone is ready to face it. When Ebi and other scientists funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the changing atmosphere is hurting the nutritional value of rice, government officials were alarmed. USDA officials — who serve at the discretion of President Donald Trump — asked the University of Washington not to issue a press release announcing the results of the study. “We did anyway,” Ebi said.

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  1. TomR

    More carbohydrates in foods are compatible with diets like Ornish, McDougal, Esselstyn ones. These can have around 80:10:10 carbohydrate:fat:protein ratios. They are good for getting thin, but not muscular. Ornish diet is also proven to fight heart diesease.

    1. Math is Your Friend

      “Ornish diet is also proven to fight heart diesease”

      Ah, yes. It says so right here, at


      in the advertising for the ‘Ornish Program’ which may or may not be covered by your health insurance.

      Or does it?

      “Reduce your risk of a heart-related event”

      Doesn’t exactly say the same thing… medical advertising meets lawyerly advice?

      And the ‘Ornish Program’ has 4 components, only one of which is diet, the other three being stress reduction, exercise, and love/support… all of which are known to have positive effects on all sorts of health issues. That’s a lot of lawsuit-proofing and regulation avoidance right there.

      Didn’t work? S/he didn’t exercise enough, had too few friends, was too stressed, and was a statistical anomaly. Not our fault.

      Even if the ‘program’ works, it is not evidence that the diet is the reason.

      Always read the fine – and not so fine – print, then think about it.

    2. Math is Your Friend

      For a more detailed critique of the Ornish diet, including a response from Ornish, see


      I know my doctors, who seem quite well informed on the latest scientific and medical results, independently give almost the exact opposite as the best currently known general diet strategy, as does the daughter of a close friend – who happens to have a 4 year degree (ie – honours program) in health and nutrition and works in the field.

  2. Henry Moon Pie

    Add to increased CO2 levels the declining quality of soils and you have a double-barreled disaster.

    What is needed is an all-hands-on-deck focus on food production. According to this post, we are already allowing 2.2 million children to die every year from nutritional deficiencies. Increased CO2, disrupted weather patterns and cratering soil quality will make that much, much worse. Is that the kind of world we want to live in or bequeath to our children and grandchildren?

    How can we increase food quantities AND quality while improving soil quality and eliminating the destructive effects of industrial agriculture? That’s where the the focus should be rather than building bigger bombs, flying billionaires to Mars (after making them immortal) or juicing bank profits. We need “victory” gardens everywhere so that there can be victory over famine and our own stupidity for having gotten ourselves in this mess.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Society is not ready to do what you call for at the whole-society level. Can individuals and group-loads of people force the pace of soil improvement for crop improvement in many spot focus localities in the meantime?

      One way to do so would be for those people who “can” afford to pay the soil-improving farmer a higher price for food in order to support the farmer’s higher cost of work and soil-improving inputs/methods. A soil higher in full spectrum nutra-minerals will be able to grow food higher in nutra-mineral and nutra-mineral derived-and-supported nutrition.

      Farmer Gabe Brown and his customers are already doing that. He grows food worth paying a higher price for, and they pay a higher price for food grown in a more soil-restorative way.

      People in a position to do personal gardens might well do that in order to learn how to grow highly nutri-dense quality food so that they can recognize the visible indicators of quality when they shop for it in ” the marketplace” . . . assuming they will never be able to grow every bit of their own food in their own yards or plots.

  3. taunger

    . “This is likely the largest impact on health from rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

    Seems unlikely compared to heat exhaustion. Why does everything have to be the best/worst/first?

    1. hunkerdown

      The marketplace of ideas doesn’t work without high-pressure hustling.

      (See, all those oversize American portions saved lives! /sarc?)

  4. Softie

    From the attack on Dr. Dean Ornish’s research.

    “And it is worth noting that among people in the study over 65, heavy consumption of animal protein actually protected against cancer and mortality.”

    Really? When my grandpswas born, his father had just died from a heart attack at age of 49. My grandpa was raised on a vegan diet which he ate in his entire life. He never suffered any chronic illnesses, high blood pressure, and etc. The last time he saw a doctor was when he was injured in an auto accident at age of 34. He was healthy and physically active all his life. But he smoked some a cigar once a month, and a 750ml bottle of whisky would normally last him 3 or 4 years. He hated beer and wine and didn’t drink any. All the relatives celebrated his 110 birthday in a really big way and they made him eat a bit more than usual. As a result he felt some discomfort and 4 days later he died.

  5. Anna

    Personally, I don’t think we have the collective resolve to mitigate or reverse this course we’re on. The cost, in terms of money and “inconvenience” is a price that most will not want to pay. We’ll close our eyes, cross our fingers and hope that nothing bad will really happen. And if it does, we’ll let our future generations deal with it and suffer the consequences. Still, we are even currently dealing with the consequences. Just take a look at how the weather and climate is changing all over the world. And how that change is influencing us and other species. As to the nutrients, I always try to get all vitamins from real food, though sometimes I do take some supplements like shilajit (if interested, read more at https://purblack.com/shilajit-ashwaganda/). But generally I do not experience any lack in nutrients, yet. but with the climate change who knows whether in future I or my children will have the possibility to enjoy all these foods we are currently enjoying.

    We take everything for granted and aren’t thinking of tomorrow. Probably someone may suggest that it’s God’s will … kind of like saying, “it’s not my fault or responsibility that billions of people will perish along with many other life forms on this planet but hey, I’m saved.”

    For me, this discussion is really about where we are and where we’re headed collectively as a human race. It’s about growing up and learning how to be responsible caring respectful human beings and good stewards of our planet earth … or choosing a much more destructive path.

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