How climate change could make our food less nutritious | Kristie Ebi

How climate change could make our food less nutritious | Kristie Ebi

October 11, 2019 100 By Ewald Bahringer


Yogi Berra, a US baseball player
and philosopher, said, “If we don’t know where we’re going,
we might not get there.” Accumulating scientific knowledge
is giving us greater insights, greater clarity, into what our future
might look like in a changing climate and what that could mean for our health. I’m here to talk about a related aspect, on how our emissions of greenhouse gases
from burning of fossil fuels is reducing the nutritional
quality of our food. We’ll start with the food pyramid. You all know the food pyramid. We all need to eat a balanced diet. We need to get proteins, we need to get micronutrients, we need to get vitamins. And so, this is a way
for us to think about how to make sure we get
what we need every day so we can grow and thrive. But we eat not just because we need to, we also eat for enjoyment. Bread, pasta, pizza — there’s a whole range of foods
that are culturally important. We enjoy eating these. And so they’re important for our diet, but they’re also important
for our cultures. Carbon dioxide has been increasing since
the start of the Industrial Revolution, increasing from about
280 parts per million to over 410 today, and it continues to increase. The carbon that plants need to grow
comes from this carbon dioxide. They bring it into the plant, they break it apart
into the carbon itself, and they use that to grow. They also need nutrients from the soil. And so yes, carbon dioxide is plant food. And this should be good news,
of rising carbon dioxide concentrations, for food security around the world, making sure that people
get enough to eat every day. About 820 million people in the world
don’t get enough to eat every day. So there’s a fair amount written
about how higher CO2 is going to help with
our food security problem. We need to accelerate our progress
in agricultural productivity to feed the nine to 10 billion people
who will be alive in 2050 and to achieve the Sustainable
Development Goals, particularly the Goal Number 2, that is on reducing food insecurity, increasing nutrition, increasing access to the foods
that we need for everyone. We know that climate change
is affecting agricultural productivity. The earth has warmed
about one degree centigrade since preindustrial times. That is changing local temperature
and precipitation patterns, and that has consequences
for the agricultural productivity in many parts of the world. And it’s not just local changes
in temperature and precipitation, it’s the extremes. Extremes in terms of heat waves,
floods and droughts are significantly affecting productivity. And that carbon dioxide, besides making plants grow, has other consequences as well, that plants, when they have
higher carbon dioxide, increase the synthesis of carbohydrates,
sugars and starches, and they decrease the concentrations
of protein and critical nutrients. And this is very important for how we
think about food security going forward. A couple of nights ago
in the table talks on climate change, someone said that they’re
a five-sevenths optimist: that they’re an optimist
five days of the week, and this is a topic
for the other two days. When we think about micronutrients, almost all of them are affected
by higher CO2 concentrations. Two in particular are iron and zinc. When you don’t have enough iron,
you can develop iron deficiency anemia. It’s associated with fatigue,
shortness of breath and some fairly serious
consequences as well. When you don’t have enough zinc, you can have a loss of appetite. It is a significant
problem around the world. There’s about one billion people
who are zinc deficient. It’s very important
for maternal and child health. It affects development. The B vitamins are critical
for a whole range of reasons. They help convert our food into energy. They’re important for the functions of many of the physiologic
activities in our bodies. And when you have
higher carbon in a plant, you have less nitrogen, and you have less B vitamins. And it’s not just us. Cattle are already being affected because the quality
of their forage is declining. In fact, this affects
every consumer of plants. And give a thought to, for example,
our pet cats and dogs. If you look on the label
of most of the pet and dog food, there’s a significant amount
of grain in those foods. So this affects everyone. How do we know that this is a problem? We know from field studies and we know from experimental
studies in laboratories. In the field studies — and I’ll focus primarily
on wheat and on rice — there’s fields, for example, of rice that are divided into different plots. And the plots are all the same: the soil’s the same, the precipitation’s the same — everything’s the same. Except carbon dioxide
is blown over some of the plots. And so you can compare what it looks like
under today’s conditions and under carbon dioxide conditions
later in the century. I was part of one of the few studies
that have done this. We looked at 18 rice lines
in China and in Japan and grew them under conditions
that you would expect later in the century. And when you look at the results, the white bar is today’s conditions, the red bar is conditions
later in the century. So protein declines about 10 percent, iron about eight percent,
zinc about five percent. These don’t sound like really big changes, but when you start thinking
about the poor in every country who primarily eat starch, that this will put people
who are on the edge over the edge into frank deficiencies, creating all kinds of health problems. The situation is more significant
for the B vitamins. When you look at
vitamin B1 and vitamin B2, there’s about a 17 percent decline. Pantothenic acid, vitamin B5,
is about a 13 percent decline. Folate is about a 30 percent decline. And these are averages over
the various experiments that were done. Folate is critical for child development. Pregnant women who don’t get enough folate are at much higher risk
of having babies with birth defects. So these are very serious
potential consequences for our health as CO2 continues to rise. In another example, this is modeling work that was done
by Chris Weyant and his colleagues, taking a look at this chain
from higher CO2 to lower iron and zinc — and they only looked at iron and zinc — to various health outcomes. They looked at malaria,
diarrheal disease, pneumonia, iron deficiency anemia, and looked at what
the consequences could be in 2050. And the darker the color in this, the larger the consequences. So you can see the major impacts in Asia and in Africa, but also note that in countries
such as the United States and countries in Europe, the populations also could be affected. They estimated about
125 million people could be affected. They also modeled what would be
the most effective interventions, and their conclusion was
reducing our greenhouse gases: getting our greenhouse gas emissions
down by mid-century so we don’t have to worry so much
about these consequences later in the century. These experiments, these modeling studies did not take climate change
itself into account. They just focused on
the carbon dioxide component. So when you put the two together, it’s expected the impact is much larger
than what I’ve told you. I’d love to be able to tell you right now how much the food you had for breakfast,
the food you’re going to have for lunch, has shifted from what
your grandparents ate in terms of its nutritional quality. But I can’t. We don’t have the research on that. I’d love to tell you how much
current food insecurity is affected by these changes. But I can’t. We don’t have the research
on that, either. There’s a lot that needs
to be known in this area, including what the possible
solutions could be. We don’t know exactly
what those solutions are, but we’ve got a range of options. We’ve got advancements in technologies. We’ve got plant breeding.
We’ve got biofortification. Soils could make a difference. And, of course, it will be
very helpful to know how these changes could affect
our future health and the health of our children
and the health of our grandchildren. And these investments take time. It will take time to sort
all of these issues out. There is no national entity
or business group that is funding this research. We need these investments critically
so that we do know where we’re going. In the meantime, what we can do is ensure that all people
have access to a complete diet, not just those in the wealthy parts
of the world but everywhere in the world. We also individually and collectively need
to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the challenges
that will come later in the century. It’s been said that if you think
education is expensive, try ignorance. Let’s not. Let’s invest in ourselves, in our children and in our planet. Thank you. (Applause)