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Climate change is turning your organic veggies into junk food


Okay, okay. I know that most of us, with certain major exceptions, know that human activity is putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since this is one of the so-called greenhouse gases it results in capturing the sun’s energy and prevents the heat from escaping back into space. This is one of the drivers resulting in the earth’s rising temperatures.

After a record annual increase for atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2016, these levels are now the highest they have been in three million years. This is due to human-caused emissions in parallel with a strong 2015/2016 El Niño event. This has set the stage for causing what the British Guardian newspaper stated in a recent headline: “Climate change already bringing disease, air pollution and heatwaves.”

With all of this going on, what else could we be worried about in terms of climate change?

A September 13, 2017 headline in Politico answered this question very clearly. “The great nutrient collapse: The atmosphere is literally changing the food we eat, for the worse. And almost nobody is paying attention.”

This article by Helena Bottemiller Evich effectively presents a provocative outcome that Irakli Loladze, a mathematician by training, discovered in a biological lab.

In 1998, while studying for his doctorate at Arizona State University, Loladze was presented with a biological conundrum. In glass beakers, the population of algae – microscopic plant plants that are the beginning of an aquatic food chain – could be dramatically increased by shining a light on the beaker. Since zooplankton – microscopic animals that live in all of the world’s oceans and lakes – eat algae, then one could assume that these would also increase.

As the light shined on the beaker, however, and as the algae multiplied rapidly, the zooplankton, even though they had more to eat, eventually started to struggle to survive. Although the algae grew faster, it did not develop the nutrients that the zooplankton needed to survive. Loladze and some associates developed a model to explain the relationship between a food source and a grazer that depends upon it for food. By speeding up the production of algae, these researchers found that it was essentially being reduced to junk food!

What does this have to do with the food that we are eating?

Our food plants are not getting more light. But, as was pointed out at the beginning of this article, they are getting higher levels of carbon dioxide. Plants need both light and carbon dioxide to grow. As stated in Politico, “If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae – junk food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients was out of whack – then it seemed logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. And it could also be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for plants people eat?”

In the world of food nutrition, there has long been a recognition that food is getting less nutritious. But this has commonly been viewed as the result of breeding food for maximum yield. These higher-yield plants are just less nutritious. None of the research that had been done on this matter had never asked the question raised by Loladze.

In fact, most of the thinking was completely the opposite. U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science, recently dismissed concerns about increasing levels of carbon dioxide. His contention was that this is good for plants since it increases photosynthesis and helps plants grow faster.

Unfortunately, it is not so simple. “Rising CO2 revs up photosynthesis, the process that helps plants transform sunlight into food. This makes plants grow, but also leads them to pack in more carbohydrates like glucose at the expense of other nutrients that we depend on, like protein, iron and zinc.”

But this issue and researching its implications has seemed to fall through the cracks in academia and in the availability of funding with which to conduct research. It cuts across disciplines, such as biology, nutrition and math, and therefore does not lend itself to our extremely narrow approach to research topics. Politico found that most nutritionists with whom they spoke had never heard of the possibility that increasing atmospheric CO2 could be decreasing the nutrition of our food.

Research that was published last summer indicates that the these trends could put hundreds of millions of people at risk for low protein, particularly in developing countries, such as India and Bangladesh, where people depend upon plants for protein. More significantly, approximately 1.5 billion people could be at risk for anemia due to a lack of iron in their diets.

In the U.S., where we do not lack for protein in our diets, the growing proportion of sugar in plants could contribute to the already alarming rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease that are endemic to our culture.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plant physiologist Lewis Ziska has added another dimension to how increasing CO2 in our atmosphere affects nutrition. However, this research doesn’t affect humans directly – it affects bees, which are essential as pollinators for plants and human crops.

Bees need protein to survive the winter. They get the protein from the pollen of plants such as goldenrod. This is a plant that humans consider a weed and therefore have not bred for maximum production. However, the protein in goldenrod pollen has decreased by a third since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In other words, increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 have caused a nutritional decrease in a wild plant. This could be one reason that bee populations are struggling to survive.

In 2014 Loladze published his latest paper on this subject. Politico stated the results as:

“Across nearly 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected from experiments over the past three decades, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron had dropped by 8 percent on average. The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals was going up. The plants, like the algae, were becoming junk food.”

Junk food is apparently the nutritional world to which our fossil addiction has condemned us. Remember to take your vitamins and protein shakes!


Krag Unsoeld is a long-time local environmental activist who is on the board of Green Pages’ nonprofit parent, the South Puget Environmental Education Clearinghouse (or SPEECH).


2 Comments on Climate change is turning your organic veggies into junk food

  1. Thanks for this article – it is important. I have heard of this issue before. We need to start putting out this kind of hard to find and hard to believe information. It gets people thinking. As always – Krag’s writing is excellent!

  2. Krag’s article points out one of the ‘easy conclusions=poor science’ models that is so distressing in our world today. We are led through our sound-bite media to imagine we understand complexity. The idea that more CO2 means more crops, is one of them. Thanks to Krag for bringing us a slice of the complexity of climate change. When Bill McKibbens explains we are all losers in a world of escalating carbon in the atmosphere, here is one concrete example. BTW I grow goldenrod specifically for the bees…

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