Alarming new research is revealing that, over the next 30 years, climate change and rising carbon dioxide (CO2) could lead to a global shortage of critical nutrients such as protein, iron, and zinc.
"We've made a lot of progress reducing undernutrition around the world recently but global population growth over the next 30 years will require increasing the production of foods that provide sufficient nutrients," explained Senior Scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and study co-author Timothy Sulser. "These findings suggest that climate change could slow progress on improvements in global nutrition by simply making key nutrients less available than they would be without it."
The total impacts could reduce global per capita nutrient availability of protein, iron, and zinc by 19.5%, 14.4%, and 14.6%, respectively. The researchers also took into account improvements in technology in their work but unfortunately they didn't offset the effects of global warming.
Furthermore, they found that the impact will not be the same everywhere. They estimate that the effects are going to disproportionally impact nations in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa South of the Sahara, North Africa, and the former Soviet Union. These are regions comprised of low- and middle-income countries.
"In general, people in low- and middle-income countries receive a larger portion of their nutrients from plant-based sources, which tend to have lower bioavailability than animal-based sources," said Robert Beach, Senior Economist and Fellow at RTI International and lead author of the study.
This is especially worrisome because these regions are already suffering from low nutrient intake. In addition, these regions are also the ones expected to have the largest growth in populations and will thus require the most nutrients.
Variations according to crops
The impacts of the shortages also vary according to individual crops. Shortages in wheat nutrients, for instance, have especially widespread implications. "Wheat accounts for a large proportion of diets in many parts of the world, so any changes in its nutrient concentrations can have substantial impact on the micronutrients many people receive," added Beach.
The study's models were limited to 2050 but Sulser added that "extending the analysis through the second half of this century, when climate change is expected to have even stronger impacts, would result in even greater reductions in nutrient availability."
The researchers also outlined that adequately quantifying the potential health impacts for individuals would also require a consideration of many factors beyond food consumption such as access to clean water, sanitation, and education.
"Diets and human health are incredibly complex and difficult to predict, and by reducing the availability of critical nutrients, climate change will further complicate efforts to eliminate undernutrition worldwide," Sulser noted.