Updated: May 10
According to The Lancet journal, the harshest impacts of climate change may be in food supply, nutrition, and diet. Shifting weather patterns will reduce crop yields all over the world, and thereby cause food shortages. And the nutritional content of food produced is likely to be severely compromised.
For example, a 2019 United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that higher carbon dioxide levels reduce the nutritional value of rice and wheat. Essential nutrients like iron, zinc, and protein will be stripped out. Research from 2014 showed that elevated CO2 levels have a similar effect on legumes such as peanuts, soybeans, and chickpeas. All of this has catastrophic implications. Between two and three billion people in the world depend on rice and wheat for most of their zinc and iron. Zinc deficiency alone is linked to approximately 800,000 young child deaths per year. Iron deficiency is the primary cause of anemia, which also often results in premature death, particularly during childbirth.
The nutritional consequences of reduced zinc, iron, and protein in grains and legumes are not the entire story. In 2014, Irakli Loladze, a mathematical biologist, analyzed the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels on 130 different species of food plants. He found that, in every case, their nutritional value was lessened. There was reduced levels of important minerals such as potassium and manganese. But there was increased levels of non-nutritious starches and sugars. “In effect, the nutrients are diluted,” comments David Berreby of BigThink.com.
People will be about twice as likely to die as a result of consuming an inadequate diet than from not having enough to eat. As food security expert Richard Choularton of the United Nations World Food Program states, “Calories aren’t good enough without micronutrients. Cognitive and physical development depend on eating the right things.”
We need to globally reduce carbon emissions, per the 2016 Paris Agreement. This would likely be the best and most direct way of avoiding worldwide crop degradation. But as time has shown, this project is far from simple. There may be other mitigation options available such as genetically engineered high-protein and high-nutrient foods. We could also curtail massive food waste in affluent countries like the United States. Meanwhile, it is wise to be mindful that we all need access to fresh, wholesome foods.