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Millions risk malnutrition as CO2 levels climb: study

By AFP
August 29, 2018

PARIS: : Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air threaten to sap wheat, rice, and other staple grains of valuable nutrients, raising the spectre of mass malnutrition, researchers warned Monday.

On current trends, higher CO2 concentrations could reduce iron, zinc and protein levels in the crops that feed the world by up to 17 percent by mid-century, they reported in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"Hundreds of millions of people could become newly deficient in these nutrients, primarily in Africa, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East," lead author Matthew Smith, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told AFP.

"These are in addition to the billions of people already deficient that could see their condition worsen."

Protein, along with the minerals iron and zinc, are essential nutrients for normal human growth and development. Zinc deficiency affects the immune system and makes children, particularly, more vulnerable to malaria, lung infections and deadly diarrhoeal diseases.

A lack of iron increases the likelihood of mothers dying during childbirth, can lower IQ, and causes anaemia, or a drop in red blood cells. Wheat, rice and maize together account for roughly 40 percent of protein, zinc and iron supply in the diet worldwide. In general, humans get three-fifths of dietary protein, four-fifths of iron, and 70 percent of zinc requirements from plants.

The global food system is also vulnerable to rising temperatures, prolonged drought, and other forms of extreme weather driven by climate change, earlier research has shown. Impacts include reduced crop yields, heat-stressed livestock, and shifts in the quantity and location of commercially-fished ocean species.

To assess how extra CO2 in the atmosphere might impact global health by 2050, Smith and colleague Samuel Myers ran models for 225 different food plants grown in 151 countries. If humanity continues emitting greenhouse gases from burning coal, oil, and natural gas at current levels, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is likely to reach 550 parts per million (ppm) by 2050. It is now at just over 400 ppm.