Dan Murphy: Veggies at Risk

In the wake of any disaster — man-made or natural — the three critical needs that must be met are the provisions of food/water, shelter and medical aid.

Even when such emergencies have abated, food security remains of paramount importance. Indeed, drought, civil unrest or outright warfare almost always trigger crises that result in hunger, malnutrition and often widespread famine.

As residents of the developed world, we often compartmentalize those problems as being exclusive to so-called Third World countries, those impoverished backwaters elsewhere in the world to which we’ll offer some assistance, even as we assure ourselves that traumas such as widespread nutrient deficiencies could never happen here.

We may not have to confront an actual famine, but there’s another threat to our continued access to optimal nutrition, not only for Americans but for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Ironically, vegetarians may be among the most seriously impacted.

Coming up a Cropper
According to an article just published in the journal Nature Climate Change titled, “Impact of anthropogenic CO2 emissions on global human nutrition,” increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may end up causing serious malnutrition.

“Atmospheric CO2 is on pace to surpass 550 ppm in the next 30 to 80 years,” wrote researchers Mathew Smith and Samuel Myers, both with the Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health. “Many food crops grown under 550 ppm [conditions] have protein, iron and zinc contents that are reduced by 3% to17%, compared with current conditions.”

That is worrisome. As the researchers noted, the cultivation of less nutritious food crops could cause 175 million people worldwide to develop a zinc deficiency and 122 million people to become protein-deficient. Worst of all, some 1.4 billion women of childbearing age and children under the age of 5 live in countries that already have a greater than 20% prevalence of anemia and would lose on average more than 4% of their dietary iron intake.

As if policymakers and scientists didn’t have enough issues affecting food production to deal with — ongoing droughts, record heat waves and more frequent and extreme weather events — now “the biochemistry of the crops themselves,” as the researchers characterized it, constitute yet another threat.

The researchers pointed out that the poorest populations living in the least-developed countries are especially vulnerable to nutrient losses because their diets already provide lower baseline levels of iron, zinc, and protein.

That raises a related issue. Other than people living in the developing world, the group most at risk if food crops become less nutritious are vegetarians — even the affluent ones who do their shopping at stores such as Whole Foods.

By avoiding all animal foods, vegetarians and vegans already run the risk of iron, zinc and vitamin B12 deficits, since those micronutrients are found most abundantly in animal foods. In fact, virtually all dieticians recommend that serious veggies add B12 supplements to their diets, since they consider it virtually impossible to obtain sufficient amounts of that essential vitamin from a plant-based diet.

In an analysis of his research on planetary health posted on TheHill.com, Dr. Myers noted that such a development could result in “more children dying of pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, and other infections as their immune systems are compromised by lack of zinc.” That means more women dying in childbirth and infants failing to survive because of iron deficiency. That also means reduced IQs and chronic stunting and wasting in children, and reduced work capacity in adults.

Myers noted that the “most vulnerable people” are the populations of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. However, he noted that, “The impacts of nutrient loss would be felt all over the world, even in the United States, where core crops like wheat and rice would deliver less nutrition per calorie after being processed into bread, pasta, cereals, and other products that wind up in cabinets and on kitchen tables.”

Not much of an upbeat scenario, to say the least.

Of course, there is research suggesting that CO2 should be considered “plant food,” and that any loss in nutrients due to atmospheric CO2 would be balanced by increased crop production.

As Myers responded, “This works in theory — a phenomenon often referred to as CO2 fertilization — but not in reality. This small anticipated increase is more than offset by the very real impacts of climate change, which are already disrupting systems of food production and lowering crop yields, through changes in temperature, soil moisture, and extreme weather events.”

He added that even if people increase their caloric intake to offset CO2-driven loss of nutrients, “The change in the ratio of calories-to-nutrients consumed would ensure new health problems, including obesity and metabolic diseases.”

What to do about this threat? Myers outlined several strategies, including monitoring crops to track nutrient level, use of different cultivars of key food crops, such as rice and legumes, and encouragement of dietary diversification, coupled with bio-fortification of staple foods.

In the end, though, those are but bandages on the open wound that is climate change.

Short-term, we should all embrace dietary diversification — especially vegetarians.

Ultimately, though, we need to do much more in terms of changing our lifestyles than merely switching up the items on our weekly grocery lists.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.