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Rising CO2 Levels Will Lower Nutritional Value in Grains

Update Date: May 08, 2014 09:37 AM EDT

According to a new study, the rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) will hamper the quality of the certain foods in the future. The researchers examined the effects of the estimated of CO2 levels in 2050 on produce and concluded that the high levels will cause certain food staples, such as rice, wheat and soybeans to lose their nutritional value.

"The bottom-line is that our work shows that by 2050 a big chunk of the world's caloric intake will have lost a significant amount of nutrients like zinc and iron that are very important for human nutrition," said lead author Dr. Samuel Myers, a research scientist and instructor in medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Why this matters is because large vitamin and mineral deficiencies already exist today in about 2 billion people. And the burden of disease associated with these deficiencies is already enormous, particularly in developing countries.

For this study, the researchers examined seven agricultural sites that were located in Australia, Japan and the United States. They used the estimate calculated by most experts that by 2050, CO2 levels will be around 550 parts per million. CO2 levels are currently around 400 parts per million and were around 280 parts per million during the pre-industrial age. Within these sites, the researchers planted 41 different versions of grains and legumes and grew them in an outdoor setting with CO2 levels set from 546 to 586 parts per million.

The researchers found that certain staples, such as sorghum and maize, were not as affected by the high levels of CO2. Even some kinds of rice managed to hold on to their nutrients as well. For other forms of rice, wheat, peas and soybeans, however, the researchers found reductions in iron and zinc. Specifically, wheat grown in this environment lost nine percent zinc, five percent iron and more than six percent protein.

"And I think it's very important not to conflate the CO2 issue with climate change," Myers said reported in WebMD. "Because while climate change is, for some, a matter of vigorous debate in terms of how it will unfold, there is no debate about the simple fact that CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. It's rising. And the nutritional impact we have identified here is entirely dependent on that rise, and nothing else."

The researchers provided two main ways to address the issue. First, countries can try to work harder in reducing CO2 emissions. The team stated that this route is hard to achieve because the estimated levels for 2050 had already taken CO2 management into account. Second, researchers can help farms create crop breeds that will be less sensitive to the effects of CO2. This method, however, must ensure that the produce will still be safe to eat.

The study was published as a form of a research letter in Nature.

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