Of all the insults climate change hurls at our food supply—from more severe droughts and floods in key agriculture regions to declining yields of staple crops—the most insidious may involve a steady decline in the quality of all the plants we eat.
That’s the startling message of a growing weight of research led by Irakli Loladze, a mathematical biologist with joint appointments at the Bryan College of Public Health in Nebraska and Arizona State University. On the latest episode of Bite—the introduction to our new series, “Eating in Climate Chaos“—I caught up with Loladze to learn more about this slow-motion nutritional train wreck and what we can do about it.
Plants are very flexible in their chemical composition, Loladze explained. When the air that surrounds them is richer in CO2, they use it to synthesize more carbohydrates, including starches and sugars, which are then stored in plant cells. Essentially, more carbon in the air means more carbs in plants, and these carbs then dilute the other beneficial chemicals taken up and/or synthesized by the plants.
More carbon in the air means more carbs in plants.
Loladze asked me to consider my breakfast on the morning of our interview, which was centered on a piece of toast. Citing a 2004 study led by Lewis Ziska, then a US Department of Agriculture researcher, now a professor at Columbia University, Loladze said that the wheat I consumed that day contained lower levels of a wide variety of nutrients than the wheat that people were consuming decades ago. It had less protein, and also fewer of “nearly all the essential minerals—calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, and copper,” he said.