Research shows link between climate change and decreasing nutrients
Updated: Jan 7
While most of the news on food and climate change is focused on decreasing yields, research shows a link between rising carbon dioxide and decreasing nutrients. A nutrient-dense diet is necessary for optimum health—to sustain energy, strength, and a strong immune system to fight disease.
CO2 in the atmosphere hit a record-high in May 2019 at 414.8 ppm (parts per million), and CO2 levels are increasing every year at an accelerating rate .
To bring this into perspective, before the Industrial Revolution the CO2 global average was about 280 ppm. The increase in CO2 we’re seeing now is more than 100 times faster than the increase after the last ice age .
To make up for the loss in nutrients, we would need to eat greater amounts of specific foods that contain those nutrients. This isn’t feasible for many people who cannot access or afford a diverse diet, and it’s not possible for billions of people worldwide who are already food-insecure and live in countries that rely on a few staple crops.
Rising CO2, decreasing nutrients
As CO2 continues to increase, how will food be impacted globally?
Mathematician-biologist Irakli Loladze began studying algae growth and zooplankton in 1998 and published early research linking rising CO2 and decreasing nutrients. His experiments showed that, while the algae grew faster with increased light, the zooplankton failed to thrive because the algae it relied on for food was decreasing in nutrients. In 2014, Loladze published a fifteen-year research study showing an overall average decrease of 8 percent in calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron in nearly 130 varieties of plants .
Research scientist Samuel Myers at Harvard School of Public Health along with colleagues released a six-year study (published in the journal Nature, June 2014) of crops exposed to levels of CO2 expected by mid-century showing decreased zinc, iron, and protein in wheat grains and decreased protein in rice grains. Two-to-three billion people worldwide eat diets primarily based on rice and wheat and would be at greatest risk of nutrient deficiencies .
Plant physiologist Lewis H. Ziska at the USDA studied eighteen varieties of rice by exposing rice fields to higher levels of carbon dioxide and found that most of the varieties “contained significantly less protein, iron and zinc than rice that is grown today.” The study also showed declines in four B vitamins (although there was an increase in vitamin E) .
Since plants need atmospheric CO2 in photosynthesis, one might expect a possible benefit from rising CO2. But higher levels of carbon dioxide accelerate photosynthesis until the rate levels off , and there is a point where too much CO2 begins decreasing nutrients with a trade-off of increasing glucose. This shift of declining nutrients from rising carbon dioxide causes a greater amount of starches and sugars . Plants grow faster but contain fewer nutrients, resulting in less nutritious food.
Restoring soil a win-win to increase nutrients, sequester carbon
We can’t grow healthy food without healthy soil. The loss of nutrient-rich soil combined with increasing levels of CO2 is a double-whammy on the global food supply. The impact of six to seven decades of industrial farming in the United States that has relied heavily on synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, and glyphosate has depleted and degraded the soil.
Restoring nutrient-rich soil through organic and regenerative farming, which enhances plant nutrients and sequesters carbon back into the ground, is a win-win for our health and climate change mitigation. (The Need to GROW award-winning documentary highlights how soil restoration increases nutrients and yield in crops.)
Taking local and global action.
What can the average person do if we’re already doing what we can to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels? Collectively, our choices are powerful.
Buy as much organic as possible and support local organic farmers.Choose a highly diverse diet, aiming to obtain nutrients from a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and rice, beans, lentils, legumes.
Start composting, if you don’t already.There are many methods to compost in small spaces indoors as well as outdoors. When we restore the soil, whether in our own backyards or on a larger commercial-scale, we become a part of the solution to help local farmers grow nutrient-rich plants that are more climate-resistant.
Begin to grow some of your own food. It doesn’t matter how small an amount or how tiny your yard may be. Many people throughout the world are growing food in small spaces and balconies. It’s important to connect to how and where our food is grown to gain a sense of self-sufficiency and resilience.
Support candidates who are committed to the Green New Deal  which addresses climate action head-on to tackle the challenges faced in agriculture and food security. Think global, act local—go to your city council meetings, propose ordinances to support sustainable business, residential and commercial composting, local organic farming, and equitable access to healthy food for everyone.
 Rob Monroe. Carbon Dioxide Levels Hit Record Peak in May. June 4, 2019. University of California/San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The Keeling Curve. https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/2019/06/04/carbon-dioxide-levels-hit-record-peak-in-may/
 CO2 at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory reaches new milestone: Tops 400 ppm.May 10, 2013. NOAA – Earth System Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division. https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/news/7074.html
 Helena Botemiller Evich. The great nutrient collapse. September 13, 2017. Politico. https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/food-nutrients-carbon-dioxide-000511
 Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss. Does Global Warming Make Food Less Nutritious? November 10, 2014. EarthTalk – Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-global-warming-make-food-less-nutritious/
 Brad Plumer. How More Carbon Dioxide Can Make Food Less Nutritious. May 23, 2018. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/climate/rice-global-warming.html
 John Postlethwait and Janet Hopson. Modern Biology (2009), p. 124. Holt, Rinehart, Winston.
 Sunrise Movement, Green New Deal. https://www.sunrisemovement.org/green-new-deal