It could cause major problems for our diets by 2050.

By Jillian Kramer
Updated August 03, 2017
co2 impacts rice crops and other crops
Credit: Weiyi Zhu / Getty Images

We all know plants need carbon dioxide to do their photosynthetic magic. But just as too much carbon dioxide can have negative effects on humans ability to function, so too can an influx of CO2 affect how plants grow. Researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health had previously proved that carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere was hurting the protein, iron, and zinc content of rice, wheat, peas, and other crops. But in a new study, those researchers sought to find out how much damage carbon dioxide was really causing, now and for the future.

They analyzed diets of people in 152 countries, cataloging the nutritional content of 225 foods, then calculated who among those people weren't getting enough of key nutrients, such as protein and iron. With those numbers in hand, the researchers could predict what people's diets—and their nutritional benefits—might look like into 2050.

It doesn't look good: as carbon dioxide continues to fill our atmosphere, the nutritional content of many crops will lessen, to the point that some 150 million people around the world could suffer protein deficiencies by 2050, the researchers found. What's more, iron supplies could plummet in the some regions.

Countries in Asia and Africa face the highest risk, the researchers say, because there, people's diets rely heavily on wheat and rice, two foods that already lack in protein and that, with increases in carbon dioxide, will continue to dwindle in nutritional value.

Protein deficiency is a real problem. Low protein won't just keep you from building muscle in the gym; protein deficiency can cause low birth weight and growth issues.

When it comes to dipping levels of iron, children and women will be at the highest risk, the researchers say. Some 354 million children younger than five and some one billion women live in countries where researchers say the iron content of crops will fall by about four percent in the next 23 years. Iron deficiency can cause anemia, and can impair the growth and lower the IQ of children who suffer from it.

Decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not exactly an easy feat. The researchers say one solution would be to develop hybrid plants with more intrinsic nutritional value. Here's hoping the world will get right on that.