CO2 emissions affect food consumption worldwide

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From rice to well known vegetables, air pollutants reduce levels of vitamins and other beneficial food nutrients

Much is said about the undeniable dangers of ever-increasing pollutant gases in our atmosphere, such as the famous carbon dioxide – the CO2. What few know, however, is that in addition to contributing to the greenhouse effect, these substances also reduce the levels of vitamins and other beneficial nutrients in our foods, including grains and edible plants.

A study conducted at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health¹ quantified this impact and revealed that by reaching the expected carbon dioxide levels by 2050, cultivated rice is expected to lose from one-sixth to almost one-third of its vitamin B content. It is the most important food of mankind, consumed by half a billion people and with crops that can provide more than 50% of their daily calories. In addition to rice, the survey also pointed the declines in protein, iron and zinc in foods such as wheat, barley, vegetables, corn and potatoes – all of them important for 148 million people.

Another study published in GeoHealth focused on the impact of CO2 on folic acid from vitamins B, riboflavin and thiamine. While maternal folate deficiencies can lead to fetal neural tube defects as well as weakness and loss of appetite in adults, low thiamine levels lead by beriberi and riboflavin deficiencies can cause skin damage and nerve disorders, including migraines. Using a framework that allows them to estimate the impact of these changes on the global disease scale, the researchers estimated that an additional 132 million people would suffer from folate deficiency based solely on rice consumption, an additional 67 million people would be thiamine deficient, and 40 more million people will be riboflavin deficient.

These numbers almost certainly underestimate the real impact of polluting emissions. As Myers and co-author Matthew R. Smith, authors of the Harvard research, write: “As high concentrations of CO2 are likely to reduce B vitamins from other foods than rice, the findings are likely to underestimate the impact of emissions effects in the intake of vitamins B”. It is also important to note that the study did not quantify the global amount of diseases that may be triggered by deficiencies in other nutrients affected by increased CO2, implying that impacts should be even larger than expected.

CO2-induced nutritional declines are an important finding for alternative solutions focused on fighting malnutrition. Moreover, they reinforce the urgency of discussing urban policies that combat the greenhouse effect. Among the indicators used by Bright Cities is the amount of pollutant gases emitted into the atmosphere. From this data we can evaluate whether or not a city diagnosed by our platform complies with environmental policies, and how it can adopt solutions to become more sustainable and beneficial to the planet.

  1. As Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Rises, Nutrient Content of Rice Falls, Harvard Magazine, September, 2019.