Quantcast
Climate
Soy was one of the key agricultural crops found to have decreased nutritional content when grown in a high C02 environment. Bigstockphoto

C02 and Food: We Can't Sacrifice Quality for Quantity

Bigger isn't always better. Too much of a good thing can be bad. Many anti-environmentalists throw these simple truths to the wind, along with caution.

You can see it in the deceitful realm of climate change denial. It's difficult to keep up with the constantly shifting—and debunked—denier arguments, but one common thread promoted by the likes of the Heartland Institute in the U.S. and its Canadian affiliate, the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition, illustrates the point. They claim carbon dioxide is good for plants, and plants are good for people, so we should aim to pump even more CO2 into the atmosphere than we already are.


We've examined the logical failings of this argument before—noting that studies have found not all plants benefit from increased CO2 and that most plants don't fare well under climate change—exacerbated drought or flooding, among other facts. Emerging research should put the false notion to rest for good.

Several studies have found that, even when increased CO2 makes plants grow bigger and faster, it reduces proteins and other nutrients and increases carbohydrates in about 95 percent of plant species, including important food crops such as barley, rice, wheat and potatoes. A 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study, published in Nature, found that increased CO2 reduced the amount of valuable minerals such as zinc and iron in all of them.

Another study, by Irakli Loladze at the Catholic University of Daegu in South Korea, looked at 130 species of food plants and found increased CO2 caused calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron concentrations in plants to decline by an average of eight percent, while sugar and starch content increased.

As a Scientific American article pointed out, billions of people depend on crops like wheat and rice for iron and zinc. Zinc deficiency is linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths, mostly children, and exacerbates health issues such as pneumonia and malaria. Iron deficiency, which causes anemia, is responsible for one-fifth of maternal deaths worldwide.

Part of the problem with the industrial agricultural mindset and the denier argument that CO2 is plant food or "aerial fertilizer" is the idea that bigger and faster are better. These studies illustrate the problem with the climate change denial argument but, in its pursuit of profit, industrial agriculture has often made the same mistake. Plants—and now even animals like salmon—have mainly been bred, through conventional breeding and genetic engineering, to grow faster and bigger, with little regard for nutrient value (leaving aside anomalies like the not-entirely-successful "golden rice"). But higher yields have often resulted in less nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Genetic engineering's promise was increased yields and reduced need for pesticides, but studies show it has fallen far short of that ambition. A 2016 National Academy of Sciences study, as well as a New York Times investigation, found no evidence that genetically engineered crops increased yields over conventional crops. Although insecticide and fungicide use on GE crops in the U.S. and Canada has decreased, herbicide use has gone up to the point that overall pesticide use has increased. France, which doesn't rely on genetically modified crops, has reduced use of all pesticides—65 percent for insecticides and fungicides and 36 percent for herbicides—without any decrease in yields.

The "golden rice" experiment shows that plants can be engineered for higher nutrient value, but that hasn't been the priority for large agrochemical companies.

As for carbon dioxide, we know that fossil fuel use, industrial agriculture, cement production and destruction of carbon sinks like wetlands and forests are driving recent global warming, to the detriment of humanity. The one flimsy argument climate change deniers have been holding onto—that it will make plants grow faster and bigger—has proven to be a poor one.

Like life itself, science is complex. Reductive strategies that look at phenomena and reactions in isolation miss the big picture. Our species faces an existential crisis. Overcoming it will require greater wisdom and knowledge and a better understanding of nature's interconnectedness. Tackling climate disruption and feeding humanity are connected. It's past time to ignore the deniers, reassess our priorities and take the necessary measures to slow global warming.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
TAFE SA TONSLEY / Flickr

Worldwide Clean Energy Investments Hit $333.5 Billion Last Year

Global investment in renewable energy hit $333.5 billion in 2018, the second-highest on record, according to a new analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

That's a 3 percent jump from 2016 and 7 percent short of the $360 billion record set in 2015.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy

How Blockchain Could Boost Clean Energy

By Jeremy Deaton

Bitcoin, the much-hyped cryptocurrency, made headlines recently for driving a surge in power use. Around the globe, digital entrepreneurs are 'mining' bitcoins by solving complex math problems, using supercomputers to get the job done. Those supercomputers use a ton of power, which largely comes from coal- and gas-fired power plants spewing gobs of carbon pollution.

But while hackers wreak havoc on the climate, blockchain, the bleeding-edge technology behind bitcoin, could one day help clean up the mess. Climate wonks say blockchain has a role to play in the clean-energy economy, helping homeowners sell electricity, allowing businesses to trade carbon credits, and making it easier for governments to track greenhouse gas emissions.

Keep reading... Show less
Abdallah Issa / Flickr

Post-Fire Landslide Problems Likely to Worsen: What Can Be Done?

By Lee MacDonald

Several weeks after a series of wildfires blackened nearly 500 square miles in Southern California, a large winter storm rolled in from the Pacific. In most places the rainfall was welcomed and did not cause any major flooding from burned or unburned hillslopes.

But in the town of Montecito, a coastal community in Santa Barbara County that lies at the foot of the mountains blackened by the Thomas Fire, a devastating set of sediment-laden flows killed at least 20 people and damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes. In the popular press these flows were termed "mudslides," but with some rocks as large as cars these are more accurately described as hyperconcentrated flows or debris flows, depending on the amount of sediment mixed with the water.

Keep reading... Show less
The most notable observation from the count was DeMartino's sighting of the golden crowned kinglet, but in general volunteers found the same species they normally do. (Photo above is of a golden crowned kinglet, but not the one DeMartino spotted.) Melissa McMasters

Birders Get a First Look at How 2017 California Wildfires Affected Wildlife

By Matt Blois

A neighbor knocked on Rick Burgess's door at about 9:30 p.m. to tell him a fire was coming towards his home in Ventura, California. When he looked outside he saw a column of smoke, and the hills were already starting to turn orange. He loaded up his truck with a collection of native plants he was using to write a countywide plant guide, and barely had enough time to get out.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
A learning garden from Kimbal Musk's nonprofit called Big Green. The Kitchen Community

Elon Musk's Brother Wants to Bring #RealFood to 100,000 Schools Across America

Kimbal Musk's nonprofit organization, The Kitchen Community, is expanding into a new, national nonprofit called Big Green, to build hundreds of outdoor Learning Garden classrooms across America.

Learning Gardens teach children an understanding of food, healthy eating and garden skills through experiential learning and garden-based education that tie into existing school curriculum, such as math, science and literacy.

Keep reading... Show less
Drilling fluids spilled into Ohio wetlands during construction of the Rover Pipeline in April. Sierra Club

Rover Pipeline Spills Another 150,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid Into Ohio Wetlands

Energy Transfer Partners' troubled $4.2 billion Rover pipeline has spilled nearly 150,000 gallons of drilling fluid into wetlands near the Tuscarawas River in Stark County, Ohio—the same site where it released 2 million gallons in April.

The 713-mile pipeline, which will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and Canada, is currently under construction by the same Dallas-based company that built the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Large Dams Fail on Climate Change and Indigenous Rights

Brazil has flooded large swaths of the Amazon for hydro dams, despite opposition from Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists and others. The country gets 70 percent of its electricity from hydropower. Brazil's government had plans to expand development, opening half the Amazon basin to hydro. But a surprising announcement could halt that.

Keep reading... Show less
Jim Henderson / Wikimedia Commons

World's Largest Money Manager: Companies Must Respond to Social and Climate Challenges

The world's largest publicly traded companies must take a more active role in solving social issues or face blowback from investors, the CEO of BlackRock said Tuesday.

"To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society," Laurence Fink wrote in his annual letter to CEOs of companies in which BlackRock invests. BlackRock is the world's largest money manager, with more than $6 trillion in assets.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!