Climate change is undoubtedly the largest threat facing humanity. It is affecting the air we breathe, the temperatures we endure, and the water we drink–endangering the health and safety of our planet's more than 7 billion people.
The colossal harm of climate change does not end there, however. More recently, studies have shown that climate change is also impacting our food's nutritional value.
Not only do severe weather conditions such as heat waves and droughts challenge crop growth, but rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are also stripping crops like rice and wheat of vital nutrients. This poses a very serious risk for everyone, especially for economically insecure populations that are already undernourished.
What is Climate Change?
The term gets thrown around a lot, but at its core, climate change simply refers to the long-term changes in global temperatures and other atmospheric properties. While mild fluctuations over time are to be expected, we are seeing unprecedented rapid warming as a result of human activities.
The signs of climate change are everywhere. Our reliance on fossil fuel burning for energy production means that excessive quantities of CO2 are emitted regularly. When trapped in the atmosphere, greenhouse gasses store heat on our planet, causing it to warm.
Greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest in 2 million years. They climb higher every year. As a consequence, we are experiencing melting polar ice caps, widespread desertification, and more frequent natural disasters.
How Does Climate Change Affect Food?
Plants need consistency to grow. With that said, extreme weather, including floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires, can greatly impact crop yields. Even more, it can injure or even kill livestock and disrupt food transportation. These disturbances will majorly affect the supply chain; we will see it when we look at empty grocery store shelves.
Climate change can also make staple crops (rice, wheat, and corn) less nutritious. Studies have shown that elevated temperatures and CO2 levels can reduce the nutrient density–particularly the zinc and iron content–of these staple crops.
In fact, high levels of CO2 actually disrupt plants' internal chemistry. In doing so, it alters how much protein and other vitamins are produced. As a real-life example, the rice you had with dinner last night will not have the same nutritional value in a year, which may leave you feeling hungrier and less energized.
This is a cause for concern everywhere, but especially in parts of the world that already face malnutrition and food insecurity. Deficiencies in nutrients like iron and zinc are already prevalent in these lower-income countries, resulting in life-threatening diseases.
Does Economic Status Impact Nutrition?
By now, many of us have heard of food deserts or areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food. Most often, food deserts are seen in low-income regions. Mass-produced processed foods tend to be cheaper, making them more affordable for people living paycheck to paycheck. In many parts of the world, however, these food items are not even an option.
On a wide scale, there are entire nations that lack a stable food system, even before considering climate change's detrimental effects.
Today, 76% of the world's population derives a majority of its daily protein from plants–predominantly in South Asia and North Africa. This research indicates that declining nutritional value caused by climate change is enough to trigger a global food crisis. Millions of people would not have the means to sustain themselves.
How Does Soil Quality Impact the Nutritional Value of Food?
Soil quality is directly linked to food quality and quantity. Soil supplies the essential nutrients and support needed for crops to grow and thrive. Soil can also be thought of as something like a protective coat for vulnerable roots when temperature drastically changes.
Soil is a living entity, home to microorganisms with diverse functions. An unhealthy soil will be less likely to break down decaying materials and mitigate plant diseases.
With the intense impact of climate change and global warming, crops would partially lose their ability to absorb nitrate. Nitrate is the most common type of nitrogen in the soil, which is converted into organic compounds like protein.
Many of us do not consider soil when we think about the nutritional value of our food. However, it is the most fundamental part of all plants. Without flourishing soil, that 76% of the population that depends on plants for its daily protein would struggle to consume any nutrition at all.
Climate change has begun to affect foods' nutritional value.
Low-income regions and developing countries are facing the brunt of climate change.
The nutritional value of food directly affects human health and biology.