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How Increased Carbon Dioxide Levels Are Detrimental To Food and Nutrition

Dr. Arshad M. Khan



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

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, 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

Forecasting for Resilience: Central Asia Strengthens Climate and Weather Services

MD Staff



Extreme weather risk is rampant across Central Asia. In Tajikistan, as much as 36 percent of the country’s territory is under threat from landslides. In the Kyrgyz Republic, avalanches pose a growing threat to communities, with more than 330 recorded avalanches occurring between 1990 and 2009. In remote areas, the threats from mountain hazards are exacerbated by existing conditions of poverty, insufficient infrastructure, and poor resources.

The region, which ranks among the most climate vulnerable areas of Europe and Central Asia, is also expected to experience significant temperature increases in the coming decades. Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, is likely to be a future hotspot of heat stress for wheat, a major crop in the area. In some parts of Tajikistan, agricultural yields could drop by as much as 30 percent by the turn of the century.

Moreover, average temperatures in the Central Asia region could rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius in the coming decades, leading to the disappearance of more than one-third of the glaciers from mountains by 2050. This would place nearby communities at greater risk from glacial outburst flooding, potentially rolling back hard-won development gains.

Given that hydrological and meteorological (or “hydromet”) hazards are responsible for 90 percent of total disaster losses worldwide, reliable and accurate weather information services are essential. Forecasting and long-term climate information, for example, could help make communities safer by enabling early warning systems, improving emergency response services, and identifying important investments in resilient infrastructure.

However, the capacity for hydromet services needs to be improved throughout the region. While countries like Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic have made tremendous strides in reducing poverty – from 80 percent a few decades ago to below 40 percent today – the challenges of a changing climate threaten to push at-risk communities back into poverty, unless targeted investments in resilience are made.

To help countries adapt to a riskier future, the World Bank’s Central Asia Hydrometeorology Modernization Project (CAHMP) is bolstering weather forecasting and early warning efforts in the region. Funded by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), this $28 million investment focuses on strengthening hydrometeorological services and generating further weather- and climate-related risk information that the region is lacking.

The project provided cutting-edge technical equipment – such as modern workstations, automated observation networks, access to satellite data, and numerical weather prediction – coupled with specialized trainings for participating agencies. These improvements have boosted forecast accuracy in the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan by 20 to 30 percent.

Overall, CAHMP rehabilitated and automated 33 meteorological stations and 3 hydrological stations in the Kyrgyz Republic, as well as 54 meteorological and 16 hydrological stations in Tajikistan. These efforts have helped dramatically improve the countries’ capacity to monitor in real-time important data such as precipitation, temperature, wind, pressure, humidity, and river flow.

Better access to important data on weather extremes, rainfall, river flows, and long-term climate trends will also help boost agricultural production, facilitate evacuations, or strengthen infrastructure throughout the region. This is especially important in Central Asia, where up to 30 percent of the workforce finds employment in the agricultural industry.

Another important industry that benefits from improved hydromet services is hydropower, which is a growing source of reliable, clean energy for countries. Benefits like these are being facilitated by direct relationships with end users, such as agricultural workers, emergency service personnel, government agencies, and others.

Implementing this vision required multiple robust partnerships, including GFDRR, the World Bank, and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Each partner provided specific expertise and resources (e.g. financing, technology, assessment, etc.) to help strengthen and streamline a region-wide strategy for boosting hydromet services.

Improving weather information through initiatives such as CAHMP delivers some of the highest cost-benefit ratios of any type of disaster risk management effort. In fact, every $1 invested in weather and climate services delivers at least $3 in socioeconomic benefits.

Globally, more than 100 countries are in need of critical modernization efforts for hydromet services. This global challenge requires international investment of at least $1.5 billion, with an additional $300-400 million per year required to support the proper operation of modernized systems.

As international partners observe World Meteorological Day this Friday, March 23, 2018, efforts like these will help illuminate a path towards a future that is “weather-ready and climate-smart.” For Central Asia, now is the time to take advantage of improved weather, water, and climate data to not only anticipate extreme weather events, but also to inform sustainable development.

World Bank

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Green Planet

Report: Drought and conflict leave millions more hungry in 2017

MD Staff



Driven largely by climate disasters and conflict, levels of acute hunger surged in 2017, leaving some 124 million people across 51 countries facing hunger crises –11 million more than the previous year, according to a new United Nations report.

“Reports such as this give us the vital data and analysis to better understand the challenge. It is now up to us to take action to meet the needs of those facing the daily scourge of hunger and to tackle its root causes,” said Secretary-General António Guterres in a video message on the report.

Presented by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the European Union at a briefing Thursday, the Global Report on Food Crises finds that food emergencies are increasingly determined by complex causes such as conflict, extreme climatic shocks and high prices of staple food – often acting at the same time.

“We must acknowledge and address the link between hunger and conflict if we are to achieve zero hunger,” said José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General.

The report points out that conflict continued to be the main driver of acute food insecurity in 18 countries – 15 in Africa or the Middle East – accounting for 60 per cent of the global total.

The increase is largely attributable to new or intensified conflict and insecurity in Myanmar, north-east Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Yemen.

“The fighting must stop now and the world must come together to avert these crises often happening right in front of our eyes,” underscored David Beasley, WFP Executive Director.

Mr. da Silva stated: “Investing in food security and livelihood in conflict situations saves lives, strengthens resilience and can also contribute to sustaining peace.”

The report finds that food crises are increasingly determined by other complex causes as well, such as extreme climatic shocks and high prices of staple food – often acting at the same time.

For instance, prolonged drought conditions resulted in consecutive poor harvests in countries already facing high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in eastern and southern Africa.

“The consequences of conflict and climate change are stark: millions of more people severely, even desperately, hungry,” maintained Mr. Beasley.

The report also flags that entire communities and more children and women are in need of nutritional support compared to last year, indicating the need for long-lasting solutions to revert the trend.

Moreover, it highlights the urgent need for simultaneous action to save lives, livelihoods and to address the root causes of food crises.

The report, which brings together regional and national data and analysis from multiple sources, demonstrates that in addition to critically needed humanitarian aid, development action needs to engage much earlier so as to tackle the root causes of extreme vulnerability, therefore, building resilience.

“This Global Report on Food Crises shows the magnitude of today’s crises but also shows us that if we bring together political will and today’s technology, we can have a world that’s more peaceful, more stable and where hunger becomes a thing of the past,” Mr. Beasley concluded.

Maps with interactive data from the report can be found here.

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Green Planet

Teaching youth to plant for the planet and change the world from the heart of Europe

MD Staff



A project run from a remote and beautiful part of the German countryside is transforming young people into climate scouts with a powerful message to share.

The Sustainability Guides and Climate Scouts project is run from the International Meeting Centre, St. Marienthal in Ostritz in the Free State of Saxony near the border with Poland.

Established in 1992, the centre conducts around 60 Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) events for more than 2,500 families, youths, adults and experts each year.

The guides and scouts project started in 1998 and welcomes groups of students for intensive courses that combine study with practical outdoor activities, and make good use of its forest experience trail and nature protection station.

Over 1,100 youth have taken part so far including 680 learning-disabled and socially disadvantaged young people who traditionally have very little access to ESD. Its geographical location means it is perfectly placed to bring together students from Germany, Poland and Czech Republic. And a new model project is currently underway which opens the door to ESD for refugees as well.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is the Plant for the Planet scheme where children have planted around 34 hectares of forest and undertaken more than 30 small-scale energy and water conservation initiatives.

Project Manager Georg Salditt said: “Our message is really twofold: we are teaching peace and the environment. We are well placed at the very heart of Europe to bring young people together who may not normally have met and to demonstrate to them that we are all human beings and we must respect each other and the planet.”

The work with refugees who come from Syria, Afghanistan and African countries and elsewhere also has a double aim.

“We want to make sure that if they make their lives here they know how important it is to protect the environment, but also if they are able to return home or to another country that they carry those messages back with them,” said Georg.

Not only is the centre itself a model of sustainability with its own environment management system: when children leave the course they take back with them ideas on how to transform their own schools. The centre ties all theory very tightly to practice. In some schools, environmental representatives have been appointed and students introduced permanent energy saving routines for heating and ventilation and for the reduction of paper use and waste.

As part of the project young people also learn about the effects of climate change on societies in the form of soil erosion, extreme weather phenomena , rural depopulation, economies and the environment especially with regard to forest damage. They are motivated by quick feedback on successes in energy and water conservation and updates on the amount of forest planted.

Crucially children also take part in communication workshops to learn how best to share and pass on what they have learned at open school days or town halls.

For Georg one of the most satisfying aspects of his work is watching the transformation take place before his eyes.

“It might sound silly but students do actually write to me one or two years after the course and say that these five days changed their lives not only as far as the environment is concerned but as a human experience. Some had never met anyone from another country at all. And they got to plant a tree!”

And there is a new project already underway.

“We are now working to introduce a project to protect bees and insects. Everyone loves honey and honeybees so we think it will be a success,” he said.


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