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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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Does the Latest IPCC Report Offer Hope For Earth

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Hurricanes and storms on both sides of the Atlantic appeared to encore the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.  It had just concluded the finalization of a special report on the impact of a 1.5 degree Celsius global warming above preindustrial levels.  Meeting in Incheon, South Korea (October 1-5), its three working groups of experts and government officials have huddled and jousted to strike a consensus on what will be necessary to restrict warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius when the globe is already up one degree.  What will earth be like with this level of warmth and what will happen if we fail?

Two earlier versions (January and June 2018) of the report were depressing to frightening.  They were made available for about a month for comment by experts and interested parties.  The real problem is a narrow window because human activity in the world emits 40 billion tons of CO2 per year — about 90 times the emission from volcanoes.  At some point, there will be enough in the atmosphere where the 1.5 degree rise will be a foregone conclusion.  While guesswork to some extent, it appears we have about 12 years before we exhaust the ‘carbon budget’; if we accept a 2C rise the date is 2045.

The tone may have been softened in the second report, but there is ‘substantial’ certainty the 2 degrees C target of the 2015 Paris Agreement, once considered safe, would be dangerous for humanity.  As the agreement also required governments to pursue efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, the remit to IPCC was to prepare a report comparing the consequences of the two alternatives as well as the feasibility and effort required to limit the rise to the lower figure.  The final report released on Oct 8, 2018 reviews 30,000 publications.

The fact that parts of the earth are already warmer than the 2 degree C figure and the results are observable should be a driver for governments.  In the Arctic, for example, where temperatures have risen up to 3 degrees C, the effort has seen chunks of icebergs breaking off and polar bears having difficulty in catching seals because of fewer blowholes — where they normally wait in ambush.  Current temperatures are higher than they ever have been in the past two millennia.

For low-lying Pacific Islands the 1.5C goal is critical for many there would lose habitat and some islands are expected to disappear under the 2C target.  The Maldives in the Indian ocean are partly under water, and some Pacific islands have already disappeared as average world sea levels rise by 3 mm a year.  Yet Tuvalu has become an exception and its land area, studied from 1971 to 2014, is growing.  Eight of its nine atolls are found to be still rising, increasing the “area by 29 percent, even though sea levels in the country rose by twice the global average.”

Even so the consequences of the earth already being 1 degree C higher than preindustrial times are apparent in the  proliferation of extreme weather events.  Unduly powerful hurricanes as in Puerto Rico or Houston, record-breaking forest fires in the U.S. and Australia, monsoons in South India this year that in Kerala have been the worst in this century, and the record temperatures in northern Europe are a few examples.  Last week the 155 mph Category 5 Hurricane Michael, 5 mph short of Category 6, devastated the Florida panhandle and continued its destruction onward into Georgia and beyond.  It was the strongest to hit this part of Florida since records began in 1881.  On the other side of the Atlantic within a week, storms and hurricanes battered Europe:  Hurricane Leslie in Portugal, storm Callum in Britain and heavy rains in France causing flash floods in the Aude region of south-west France.  All of which can be expected to worsen as the earth’s mean temperature rises, increasing in both frequency and intensity.

The IPCC report presents four pathways (p.19 Executive Summary) each with net zero CO2 emissions within the next quarter century.  The least interventionist scenario utilizes only afforestation to remove CO2.  The report is optimistic in demonstrating synergies (p.27) with sustainable development goals.  That CO2 removal technologies known as direct air capture (DAC) are also being developed successfully adds to the optimism.

At the same time the warnings are clear.  All the options require a rapid decarbonization of the fuel s:upply i.e. no fossil fuels — coal just about gone by 2050 and three-quarters of the energy from renewables (p.19 after four pathways graphs).  The risks for fisheries and coral reefs will remain high (p.13) even with the 1.5C scenario and coastal populations and farming will be worse off than now.  Severe weather consequences can be expected to worsen.  But all that is the world to be.  Hence the argument for the most interventionist scenarios where the atmospheric CO2 is eventually reduced.

For all this the need to act now is clear in the facts and numbers.

Author’s Note:  An earlier version of this article appeared on counterpunch.org.

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Air pollution linked to “huge” reduction in intelligence

MD Staff

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Air pollution can have a “huge” negative effect on cognitive intelligence – especially amongst older men – according to a study released this past August.

The research is one of the first of its kind to focus on the links between air pollution and cognition in older people. It was undertaken by scientists at Peking University in Beijing, China and Yale University in the U.S. and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. In particular, it found that long-term exposure to air pollution may impede overall cognitive performance.

The researchers’ sample set included a panel of over 25,000 people across 162 randomly chosen counties in China. The study was also based on daily readings for three atmospheric pollutants, namely sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10) where the participants lived.

The research found that that accumulative exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and math tests. It found that as people age, the negative effect becomes particularly pronounced on verbal scores, especially for men while, “the gender gap is particularly large for the less educated.” One of the reasons why the researchers suggest that older men with less education were worst affected by chronic exposure to air pollution is because those subjects often work in outdoor, manual jobs.

The scientists concluded that, “The damage on the aging brain by air pollution likely imposes substantial health and economic costs, considering that cognitive functioning is critical for the elderly for both running daily errands and making high-stake decisions.” Given this damaging effect of air pollution on cognition, particularly on the aging brain, “the study implies that the indirect effect on social welfare could be much larger than previously thought.”

“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” Yale School of Public Health’s Professor Xi Chen, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview published in The Guardian.

The study also suggests that air pollution increases the risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

“Air pollution is a significant threat to public health and this study highlights the negative effect that such pollution may have on the ageing brain,” said Soraya Smaoun, Air Quality Coordinator at UN Environment. “A better understanding of the critical links between air pollution and health for policies and investments supporting cleaner transport and power generation, as well as energy-efficient housing and municipal waste management can reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution.”

According to the World Health Organization, seven million people die each year from exposure to polluted air, both indoor and outdoor. The three biggest killers which are associated to air pollution are stroke (2.2 million deaths), heart disease (2.0 million) and lung disease and cancer (1.7 million deaths).

The World Health Organization’s air quality database shows that that 97 per cent of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants do not meet air quality guidelines presently. However, the percentage is much lower in higher income countries – 40 per cent.

What is being done about air pollution?

A worldwide movement to address air pollution is gradually taking shape and growing. Breathe Life – a global campaign headed by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the World Health Organization and UN Environment – is supporting a range of cleaner air initiatives that cover 39 cities, regions and countries, reaching over 80 million people.

Most major cities are still struggling to keep air pollution within acceptable levels as set out by the World Health Organization guidelines. However, by instituting policies and programmes to reduce transport and energy emissions, and by encouraging the use of clean energy, cities are leading change and improving the lives of a large number of people.

In 2018, the World Health Organization found that more than 57 per cent of cities in the Americas and more than 61 per cent of cities in Europe had seen a fall in both PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter between 2010 and 2016.

The rise of renewable energy is also ideally positioned to make a big difference, with investment in new renewable sources outstripping fossil fuel investments every year.

UN Environment

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IPCC Report: On Our global Jihad against Cognitive mind

Anis H. Bajrektarevic

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A major new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was just released in Korea on October 8 (2018). Although it is nearly 800 pages long and includes more than 6,000 scientific references, it can be summarized in few sentences:

The average global temperature is now 1.0°C above its pre-industrial levels.That increase is already causing more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, and is damaging untold number of land and sea ecosystems.

A 1.5°C increase, likely by 2040, will make things worse. A 2.0°C increase will be far worse than that. Only radical socio-economic and politico-diplomatic change can stop catastrophe. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there is only a dozen years left for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C. Beyond that an irreversibility effect would be set in motion: even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. To avoid the most serious damage requires transforming the world economy within just a few years, said the authors, who estimate that the damage would come at a cost of a fantastic $54 trillion. This transformation goes – of course – beyond what we usually label as ‘economy’. It requires a change of entire human dynamics; moods and preference of how we extract, manufacture, distribute, consume, spend, live, travel, power all that, think of and teach about it.

Reactions are folding: “Limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would be a herculean task, involving rapid, dramatic changes in the way that governments, industries and societies function” – says the Nature magazine. Science Daily predicts: “Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society … With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society”.

Ecological Footprint of ‘Here-Us-Now’ civilisation

However, for the informed and willing ones all was clear already with the Rio summit. Back then, I was quick to react: it was me being one of the very first to concept and introduce (and set as obligatory) the subject of SD (along with Environment Ethics) in the universities of Europe. Thus, for the past two decades I’ve been teaching my students that: “Currently, the amount of crops, animals and other bio matter we all extract from the earth each year exceeds what such a small planet can replace by an estimated 20% – meaning it takes almost 14,4 months to replenish what we use perannum – in consecutive 12 months – deficit spending of the worst kind.”

Lecture after lecture, generation after generation, I educated my students that: “Through pollution and global warming are legacies of products, processes and systems designed without thought to the environmental consequences, cohesion of international community along with rapid introduction of new international policies and strategies in a form of clean practices and technologies holds the solutions (e.g. promoting greater coherence between energy, research and environmental policies). Since the environmental degradation (incl. the accelerated speed of extinction of living species – loss of biodiversity) knows no borders – the SD (Sustainable Development) is a matrix of truly global dimensions.”

In the meantime, the Climate Change nihilists and paid lobbyists dominated media by accusing this sort of constructivism and predictive education as an environmental alarmism and scientific sensationalism. This is how we lost almost three decades from Rio over Johannesburg, Copenhagen, Kyoto and Paris to come to our current draw: an abyss of “only 12 years left” diagnosis.

How shall we now tackle our past optimism about the possibilities and the current pessimism about the probabilities? How to register our future claims rapidly and effectively on preservation of overall human vertical when we systematically ridiculed and dismissed every science short of quick profit (or defensive modernization), when we pauperized and disfranchised so many people of this planet  in past few decades like never before in history?

Hence, the rapid, far-reaching changes to almost every facet of society are needed to avoid catastrophic climate change, reforms far beyond anything governments are currently either doing or planning to do. Additionally, it requires complete reversion of our life styles and socio-economic fashions, passions and drives – e.g. elimination of “here-us-now” over-consumerism of everything tangible and non-tangible.

Social fractured Planet devastated by anti-intellectualism

Are we are able to mobilise our socially fractured, and anti-intellectualised globe that fast and that solid?

The world must invest $2.4 trillion in clean energy every year through 2035 and cut the use of coal-fired power to almost nothing by 2050 to avoid catastrophic damage from climate change, according to scientists convened by the United Nations. That of course includes an elimination of oil and gas from our Primary Energy Mix (PEM) as well as total eradication of the ICE-powered cars (of both diesel and petrol/ benzin). All that is required within the following decade.

What changes this new “Cambrian explosion” will cause on adaptive and non-adaptive inorganic clusters and systems of our biota, and its group dynamics? Notably, what impact it will have on the traditionally automotive-industry leaning regions, and what on aviation industry – which, at least when comes to continental Europe, could have been grounded decades ago – since even at our current technological level, the rail transportation would be cheaper faster safer than using planes? What implication does it bring to the extremely crude-exporting dependent Middle East, which is situated in a center of our planet but at the periphery of human progress? This is to name but few of numerous implications and unanswered dilemmas yet even unasked question[1].

No doubt, our crisis is real, but neither sudden nor recent. Our environmental, financial and politico-economic policies and practices have created the global stress for us and untold number of other species. Simply, our much-celebrated globalisation deprived from environmental and social concerns, as well as from a mutual and fair cooperation(instead of induced confrontation and perpetuated exclusion) caged us into the ecological globalistan and political terroristan. (Acidifying of oceans and brutalization of our human interactions are just two sides of a same coin. What is the social sphere for society that is the biosphere for the very life on earth, since what what we euphemistically call anthropogenic Climate Change is actually a brutal war against nature.)

The world based on agreed principles that – besides businesses and governments – involves all other societal stakeholders, re-captured global cohesion and commonly willing actions is not a better place. It is the only way for the human race to survive.

Deep and structural, this must be a crisis of our cognitivity. Therefore, the latest Climate Change (CC) Report is only seemingly on Climate; it is actually a behavioristic study on (the dead end of) our other ‘CC’ – competition and confrontation, instead of cooperation and (all-included) consensus. Simply, it is the Report on our continued global Jihad against cognitive mind.

  • [1] Still today, sustainability is lacking an operational definition: There is a controversy whether to consider a human-made capital combined with a natural capital (weak sustainability) or separately (strong sustainability). The central to this question is to which extend a human capital or rather technology can substitute the loss of natural resources.
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