WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may cut the nutritional quality of some of the world’s most im-portant food crops.
Researchers reported the findings after conducting experiments simulating conditions expected by mid-century.
The amounts of two important nutrients, zinc and iron, were found to be lower in wheat, rice, soybeans and field peas grown in open air fields, where the scientists created CO2 concentrations at the level they forecast for Earth by roughly 2050, about 550 parts per million.
They grew 40 varieties of six grains and legumes, also including corn and sorghum, at seven locations in Japan, Australia and the United States.
“This is important because almost two billion people globally receive most of these two nutrients (zinc and iron) by eating crops,” said University of Illinois plant biology professor Andrew Leakey, one of the researchers.
The researchers said these findings point to one of the most important health threats shown to be linked to climate change.
Dr. Samuel Myers of the Harvard School of Public Health, who led the study published in the journal Nature, said there already is a significant public health problem in parts of the world because of inadequate intake of zinc and iron.
Myers said inadequate zinc intake affects the immune system and makes people more vulnerable to premature death from malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea. Myers said iron deficiency is linked to increases in maternal mortality, anemia, reductions in IQ and reduced work productivity.
Scientists have sought to gauge the impact of climate change on humankind in the coming decades, including the effects of CO2 levels that have been rising because of the burning of fossil fuels since the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
Earth’s atmospheric CO2 concentration is 400 parts per million and continues to rise.The study found that wheat grown under elevated CO2 conditions had nine percent lower zinc levels and five percent lower iron levels than did wheat grown under normal conditions.
Rice grown with elevated CO2 levels had three percent less zinc content and five percent less iron.
Wheat and rice also had lower protein content at the elevated carbon dioxide levels, the researchers said.
Nutrients in sorghum and corn remained stable at the higher carbon dioxide levels because these crops use a kind of photosynthesis that concentrates CO2 in their leaves, the researchers said.
The scientists simulated higher CO2 levels in open air fields using a system known as free air concentration enrichment, which pumps out, monitors and adjusts ground level CO2 in the air to simulate future conditions.