Rising temperature and carbon emissions decrease food's nutrient quality

The United Nations (UN) refers to change as the “defining issue of our time.” In its most recent report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change found that from 1880 to 2012, the average global temperature increased by 0.85 °C. This rise in temperature is directly linked to the rise in greenhouse gasses (GHGs). Carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas, accounting for about two-thirds of GHG emissions.

How is that related to nutrition? Increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere lowers the nutritional quality of crops. Additionally, climate change is a threat to global food production, food systems, and overall nutritional quality of foods. Because of this, climate change is likely to make millions more people nutrient deficient globally.

Climate change could contribute to 175 million more people developing a zinc deficiency by 2050. Additionally, due to climate change, 1.4 billion women of reproductive age and children under five years old will be living in regions where they are at the highest risk of developing iron deficiency. Zinc is important in helping children develop, strengthening immunes systems, and lessening the complications of diarrhea. Iron is important in preventing nutritional anemia. Deficiencies in either of these minerals negatively impact human health. Furthermore, anemia results in lethargy and decreased productivity, and childhood anemia is associated with a 2.5% drop in wages in adulthood.

The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is expected to rise to 550 parts per million (ppm) over the next 40-60 years, and nutritional quality of foods will continue to decline. Fortifying wheat flour, maize flour, and rice with essential nutrients could offset the nutrients lost due to rising carbon emissions.

Fortifying foods, including staple grains, is useful in helping to prevent nutritional deficiencies. In Costa Rica, anemia declined in women and children, and iron status in children improved after fortification. Also, each year of flour fortification is associated with a 2.4% decrease in anemia prevalence among non-pregnant women. Additionally, when adopted at a national level, fortification helps all individuals, including the poorest of the urban poor, get more of the nutrients they need. This is especially useful when considering how many more people will be living in areas with heightened risks for developing a nutritional deficiency due to climate change.

In general, industrial food fortification does not negatively impact the environment as it uses existing food processing and delivery systems. In contrast, developing new nutrient-dense foods or farming more land to offset the nutrients lost due to climate change.

Top Photo Credit: @Bernat Casero at Flickr Creative Commons