In an official study using field wheat, scientists discovered that excessive levels of carbon dioxide in the air lessen the plants’ ability to assimilate nitrates into proteins. The study was published April 6, 2014, in the journal Nature Climate Change and it has many people concerned.
"Food quality is declining under the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that we are experiencing," said the study’s lead author Arnold Bloom, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California-Davis.
Processing of nitrogen- based compounds and converting them to proteins is crucial to those who consume the plants. Grains such as wheat are not a major source of protein for more developed parts of the world and alternative, protein- rich foods exist. But from a global perspective, this news is somewhat alarming because wheat supplies almost 25 percent of the protein in the global human diet.
The study was conducted using wheat grown in 1996 and 1997. In the latter year, the wheat field was exposed to additional carbon dioxide. The wheat was harvested and stored in vacuum sealed containers, then later tested and discovered to contain less protein than the wheat grown in 1996.
Based on the results of this study, Bloom stated that "the overall amount of protein available for human consumption may drop by about 3 percent as atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches the levels anticipated to occur during the next few decades." Bloom pointed out that similar studies have been conducted on wheat and other plants and the results were the same. On average, there was an 8 percent decline of protein concentrations in potatoes and grains such as wheat, rice and barley when carbon dioxide was increased.
These percentages might seem small and in many ways, they are small. However, any decrease in protein levels, even a small decrease, can have a noticeable impact on world health over time. Even in developed countries like the United States, the decrease in protein can lead to health issues and force individuals to alter eating habits in order to make up for the protein deficit. Concerned parents may have to substitute meat, dairy, and other products in place of grains in their children’s’ diets. Worse still, the effects of climate change could decrease food production and drive food prices higher, forcing families in developed countries to alter their lifestyle and making food in poorer countries even more difficult to obtain.
"As we go forward in time, we're going to see first in the poorer countries... decreases in some of the main crops like wheat or corn that feed their populations. Eventually they get into trouble and they don't have enough food to feed their people," said Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, lead author of a report recently issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Adding extra nitrogen to plants through fertilization could help combat this problem, but it could lead to other concerns. It would add even more cost to agricultural production and it could increase the nitrate levels in ground water. In addition, added nitrogen could increase emission of nitrous oxide, a known greenhouse gas, leading to a vicious cycle that escalates in severity each year.
Further studies of this kind will be necessary to draw a definite conclusion, but the results so far point to lower food quality and higher prices overall. It’s yet another factor to consider in the ongoing debate over climate change and its ill effects.
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