Global Warming is Leeching Protein from Key Crops, New Research Finds

Global Warming is Leeching Protein From Key Crops

Global warming is causing protein levels in staple crops to decrease drastically due to increased carbon dioxide levels in the air, according to new research released Wednesday. The number of people around the world who rely on plant-based protein sources is so great that this decrease is likely to lead to protein deficiencies for 150 million people around the world before 2050.

Researchers who contributed to the Harvard-led study calculated that the protein content of rice, wheat, barley, and potatoes decreased by 7.6 percent, 7.8 percent, 14.1 percent, and 6.4 percent respectively when these crops were exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide.

Researchers say that they still do not understand how or why this decrease of protein comes about.

“The short answer is we really have no idea,” lead author Samuel Myers, a senior research assistant at Harvard, told AFP.

The report, which was published in Environmental Research Letters, used global dietary information from the United Nations to calculate the impact of this protein decrease on protein-deficient populations around the world, particularly the 76 percent of the globe relying on plants for most of their daily protein. The researchers found that the discrepancy in protein content is so great that it may may cause 18 countries to lose over 5 percent of their dietary protein by 2050, leading to stunted growth and early death in these populations.

Hardest hit areas are expected to be Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia including India, where 53 million people are expected to be affected.

Other research has shown that global warming also adversely affects other nutrients in plants. Another Harvard paper, published in GeoHealth in May, notes that concentrations of iron dropped as much as 10 percent in crops like maize when exposed to carbon dioxide. A 2015 study co-authored by Myers showed that elevated carbon dioxide emissions also reduce the zinc in plants, and a 2012 study from the University of Gothenburg found that the general nutrition content of wheat suffered dramatically with rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

A 2015 report called “Appetite for Change” also signaled 55 foods that may disappear from the planet entirely due to climate change.

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco