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Green Planet

How Increased Carbon Dioxide Levels Are Detrimental To Food and Nutrition

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The UN has announced record average levels of CO2. So states the annual flagship report released October 30 by its World Meteorological Organization. The average levels measured using ships, aircraft and land stations have reached over 400 parts per million (ppm), prompting the authors and other scientists to urge strong action. 

At the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) taking place Nov 6-17 at UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, local and regional leaders have signed the Bonn-Fiji Commitment for faster climate action to help deliver the Paris Accords.  Such efforts are increasingly urgent.

That climate change will affect food production is intuitive. Rising global temperatures and the consequent extreme weather events and changes in climate patterns impact production, distribution and potential for spoilage. Some of the worst hurt will be people in a broad tropical belt of countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. And ever more severe hurricanes and typhoons due to rising ocean temperatures will do their damage to coastal areas.

But there is another effect related to rising CO2 levels: Higher CO2 concentration stimulates plant growth. Plants are larger, producing more carbohydrates, but this fast growth lowers the concentration of protein and essential minerals. As this also affects food crops like rice, wheat, potatoes and vegetables, it is likely to impact negatively on nutrition and health.

As CO2 rises, plant stomata (pores that facilitate gas exchange) close up. Less water transpiring through the stomata results in less water from the roots, and less minerals brought up to build the proteins and vitamins.

A Harvard study reports that under elevated concentrations of CO2 (eCO2) as projected for 2050-2100, protein content decreased as follows: rice (7.6 percent), wheat (7.8 percent), barley (14.1 percent) and potatoes (6 .4 percent). It estimated an additional 148 million of the world’s population could risk protein deficiency. Plant-based diets (such as those prevalent in India) increase vulnerability in the population. The study also projects that a billion-plus mothers and 354 million children could be affected by a dietary drop in iron and subsequent anemia.

The levels of CO2 have been rising steadily since the industrial revolution. In the nearly 60 years since 1958, they have increased from 316 ppm to the latest figure of 406.58 ppm measured on January 22, 2017. It is the highest figure in human history. The Harvard study noted above predicts CO2 to increase in the range 500-700 ppm for 2050-2100. Meanwhile, the US Global Change Research Program projects CO2 levels to reach anywhere from 540-958 ppm by 2100 — the latter figure a truly disconcerting scenario.

Vegetables too, are not immune. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in studying the food content of 43 garden crops, found significant decline in nutrients. They found statistically reliable declines in protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid, ranging from 6 percent for protein to 38 percent for riboflavin. To maintain health, humans will have to supplement their diet with vitamins and minerals. It is a prospect not very feasible in the less developed countries, leaving those populations exposed to malnutrition and early death.

Irakli Loladze noted the effects of speeded up growth on plant nutrients while pursuing a Ph.D. at Arizona State University. The subject was green algae, and how, when they were bombarded with light, they grew faster. Yet the plankton that fed on it, and had now more than enough to eat, began to struggle to survive. The cause was soon evident. Speeded up growth had so reduced the nutritional content that the plankton could not eat enough to thrive.

Another way growth speeds up is through increased levels of atmospheric CO2, and that also increases levels of carbohydrates through plant sugars, thereby diluting other nutrients. Loladze had moved to a post-doctorate position at Princeton, and while there, published his findings as “Rising CO2 and Human Nutrition: Towards Globally Imbalanced Plant Stoichiometry.” It was the first to propose that rising CO2 levels cause a change in plant quality, reducing essential minerals and protein, thus affecting human nutrition. A later article backed up his assertions with solid research.

Many researchers are now involved in the area. Thus, a paper by Swedish and German academics published this year examined wheat crops under elevated levels of CO2. Its findings confirm increasing yields but decreasing nutrients, including significant reductions in the dietary important elements N, Fe, S, Zn and Mg.

If humans are impacted, then surely other species are as well. Lewis Ziska, a noted researcher with the USDA, planned an experiment to allay another concern: that of plant breeding and its effect on nutrients. He chose the goldenrod, a wild flower for which there is a long history. The Smithsonian has in its archive samples dating back as far as 1842. Since no human plant breeding is involved in the goldenrod, it afforded the Ziska team a clear path to look at environmental effects. They discovered the protein content had reduced by a third through increasing CO2.  

It also happens the goldenrod is critical to bees. It flowers late and the protein in its pollen is an important source of nutrition for bees as they build themselves up to weather the winter. Thus, a drastic drop like a third of protein content could easily contribute to the serious decline in bee populations around the globe. Now with its own acronym, CCD for Colony Collapse Disorder, it continues, although thankfully has declined from a high of 60 percent in 2008 to 31.1 percent in 2013, as reported by beekeepers to the Environmental Protection Agency. Moreover, strenuous replenishment efforts by beekeepers have helped to stabilize somewhat these domesticated colonies. Of course, wild bee losses are another matter.  Bees are critically important as they pollinate over 80 percent of cultivated fruit, vegetable and grain crops, not to mention nuts, herbs, oils, forage for dairy and beef cattle, and medicinal plants.

One final sobering thought: The nutrient content of food is expected to continue to fall as CO2 levels increase this century. There is no doubt that this decline will impact a wide range of species, including us.

Author’s Note:  This article’s original version appeared first on truth-out.org

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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Green Planet

How dangerously dirty water is threatening one of the world’s ancient religions

MD Staff

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On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon in Baghdad, Sheikh Anmar Ayid hitches up his robe and crouches by the Tigris river. Rocking back and forth on his haunches, he flicks the water from side to side – all the while chanting rhythmically in Aramaic. After finishing his ablutions, a two-minute procedure, the young sheikh turns to a small mud-brick temple and begins to pray.

In past years, Ayid might then have quenched his thirst directly from the river. As a Mandaean priest, an adherent of a pre-Abrahamic faith that’s native to the Fertile Crescent, he and his co-religionists believe the Tigris  – and the Euphrates – are sacred and flow from heaven. Clerics are consequently only supposed to drink from and eat food washed in their waters.

That, however, is scarcely even possible these days. Dirtied and drained almost from the moment they rise, Iraq’s great waterways are in bleak states by the time they reach the country’s heavily urbanized centre. To drink straight from them is to invite near instant sickness. And so as the rivers plumb desperate new lows, seemingly worsening by the year, the Mandaeans are struggling to practice their several thousand-year-old rituals.

“We depend on the water for everything, for worship, for daily life, for food,” Ayid said. “But because the water is going from bad to very bad, we are negatively affected.”

Across the world, water pollution is leaving a devastating trail in its wake. Eighty per cent of all wastewater goes untreated, and much of finds its way back into rivers and lakes – where it contributes to ecosystem and public health crises. Up to a third of all rivers are blighted with pathogenic waste, according to UN Environment data, and a seventh suffer from organic waste problems, mostly from agricultural fertilizer run off. In largely desert countries, like Iraq, worsening sandstorms and diminishing grass cover have caked the rivers with dust and saddled water treatment facilities with a new range of woes.

Never before, though, it seems, has poor water quality imperiled an entire religion. Already threatened by jihadists and criminal gangs, who damn them as heretics and target them for their historic role in the gold trade, the Mandaeans’ numbers have fallen from 100,000 to less than 10,000 in Iraq since 2003. For those who remain, pollution’s assault on one of the central tenets of their faith has added final insult to injury.

In Amarah, 350 km south of Baghdad on the Tigris, the pollution is so debilitating that not even boiling water is enough to prevent local priests from falling ill. At their heavily-guarded riverside temple in the Iraqi capital, Ayid and his colleagues have taken to leaving buckets of water to sit for a day, before skimming off the layer of fetid scum that’s usually accumulated on the top. From Baghdad to the Mandaeans’ traditional heartlands in the country’s far south, there’s so much glass and trash in the shallows that few worshippers dare set foot in the rivers without wearing sandals.“Our religion believes human nature requires hygiene, and so for us many things are built around water,” Ayid said. “But where is the hygiene here?”

What makes this all the more frustrating for many Mandaeans is that the culprits are hiding in plain sight. With insufficient wastewater treatment facilities and lax environmental regulations, ever-growing volumes of industrial and domestic refuse are seeping into the rivers. In Baghdad alone, dozens of places, including the Dora oil refinery and the massive Medical City hospital complex, discharge waste directly into the Tigris, according to local conservationists. All this at the same time as upstream dam construction and reduced rainfall cut the rivers’ flow has brought the lifeblood of the Mandaeans faith to the brink of disaster.

“When water levels drop, the health of that lake or river is likely to be affected, both in terms of quantity and quality,” says Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a Programme Officer in UN Environment’s Freshwater Unit. “And the lower the flow, the less likely that water body is to be able to deal naturally with water pollution and contamination.”

Globally, there is an increasing awareness that something drastic has to be done. UN Environment operates a monitoring system, GEMS/Water, which keeps tabs on river and lake water quality, and also helps states establish their own water quality surveillance networks. “For me, it’s like going to the doctor,” Bernhardt says. “You need that monitoring, those stats and numbers, to understand what’s happening and know a bit more about what you can do about it.” By encouraging the planting of water grasses and the preservation of wetlands, for example, UN Environment is pushing for green solutions to water quality problems.

But for the Mandaeans, the fear is that no manner of solutions might arrive fast enough to save their rituals – and perhaps their very existence. Scattered now across Europe, North America and Australia, they question whether a community as small as theirs can endure in diaspora. That a people whose faith teaches care for the environment might die in part because of it is a tragic irony not lost on Sheikh Ayid.

“Above all, we respect the water, of course. But we respect the Earth and the animals too. It is forbidden, for example, to play with a living tree, to slaughter an animal unless it is needed, or to throw things into the river,” he said. “Our daily life depends on nature, but nature is not being kind to us.”

First published in UN Environment

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Promoting food production that values ecosystems

Newsroom

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Kenya is looking to develop agricultural activity that recognizes the benefits of biodiversity and climate-friendly land management.

UN Environment and the National Museums of Kenya have agreed to work together to develop policy reforms in agriculture that take into account the value of ecosystems. A scoping workshop for the three-year German-funded project entitled Supporting Biodiversity and Climate-friendly Land Management in Agricultural Landscapes will take place on 21-22 February 2018. Other collaborating countries are Colombia, Tanzania and Thailand.

Within UN Environment the project is being led by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) unit, which focuses on “making nature’s values visible”.

The project seeks to:

  • mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making at all levels
  • help decision-makers recognize the wide range of benefits provided by ecosystems and biodiversity.
  • demonstrate their value in economic terms.

Agriculture is at the centre of human well-being and sustainable development. It has influenced our value systems, our cultural heritage, the structure and location of our communities, and the development of other sectors in the economy.

However, the ties between food systems and human health and cultural heritage are increasingly becoming invisible, as are the impacts our production systems are having on nature. This invisibility discourages stewardship of our natural resources and fosters their unsustainable use, generating negative impacts for both present and future generations.

2015 TEEB for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) Interim Report seeks to explain the complex links between ecosystems, agriculture and the food we eat. It provides insights into the importance of ecosystems and biodiversity, and the (visible and invisible) impacts of different production systems on human and ecological well-being.

Much of the project’s work will focus on building national, regional and local government capacity to produce tailored economic assessments of ecosystems. The ecosystems and agricultural landscapes that are critical to policy will be chosen at the workshop.

The project will consolidate guidance and training for TEEB national implementation; provide technical support on valuation and accounting for specific national-level TEEB projects; and enhance the communication and dissemination of TEEB results.

UN Environment

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Green Planet

5 ways the United Kingdom is leading the fight against plastic pollution

Newsroom

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We’re only two months into 2018, but this year has already seen a number of concrete steps to combat plastic pollution in the United Kingdom. Changing public opinion, along with new restrictions on sending plastics to China (which previously took in 66 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste), have forced businesses and government bodies to reconsider traditional strategies for dealing with discarded plastic.

1. Queen Elizabeth bans disposable plastic

Buckingham Palace has implemented a plan to phase out the use of disposable plastics at royal estates. The new waste plan calls for ending the use of plastic straws and bottles in public and private dining areas. Additionally, biodegradable takeaway containers will be introduced. The Queen was reportedly inspired after working on a wildlife film with Sir David Attenborough, whose recent involvement in the BBC series Blue Planet 2 has been praised for bringing greater attention to the issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

2. Restaurants ditch plastic straws

An increasing number of UK restaurants and pubs are joining the global movement to end the use of plastic straws. Chains such as Costa Coffee, Pizza Express, Wagamama restaurants, and Wetherspoons have all put plans into place to phase out the use of non-biodegradable drinking straws in 2018. A number of independent establishments have also followed suit, encouraging customers to forego the straw or use a biodegradable one.

3. Scotland announces nationwide bans

While many companies and individuals have made great progress by phasing out plastic straws, the British nation of Scotland took it a step further by announcing plans for a countrywide ban on straws, which will be developed this year. This came on the heels of a previous announcement in January to ban the sale and manufacture of plastic cotton buds, which will be phased out over the course of 2018.

4. The UK says no to microbeads

In January, a government ban on plastic microbeads officially went into effect. The miniature plastic particles are widely used in cosmetics, soaps, and toothpastes, and due to their small size, can slip through treatment plants and pollute rivers and lakes. The first phase of the ban prevents the plastics from being used in the making of cosmetics and cleaning products, followed by a complete sales ban in July. This law follows similar ones passed by the United States, Canada, and Ireland, as well as moves by global cosmetics companies to phase out the use of such products.

5. Supermarkets go plastic free

In January the UK supermarket chain Iceland made headlines when it announced plans to eliminate plastic packaging for all Iceland branded products. The company released a five-year strategy that calls for introducing paper and pulp food containers, as well as paper bags, all of which can be returned to in-store recycling facilities. The company has already banned plastic straws and is beginning to introduce the new packaging over the next couple of months. Other companies such as Tesco and Aldi UK have announced similar plans, a response to increased demands from shoppers for environmental responsibility.

This article was originally published by UN Environment

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