Vanishing Nutrients. It’s a hazard of climate change you probably haven’t heard of.

  Is it possible to starve yourself of nutrients while simultaneously gaining weight? It turns out the answer is yes. According to a growing body of research, rising carbon dioxide levels are making our food less nutritious, robbing key crops of vitamins essential to human development.

Studies have shown that crops as varied as wheat, maize, soybeans and field peas contain less protein, zinc, and iron when grown under levels of carbon dioxide expected by 2050. Many crops have already suffered losses in these nutrients; one study compared modern plants with historical herbarium specimens and found that levels of all minerals, including zinc, iron and calcium, closely tracked carbon dioxide levels through time.

It seems counterintuitive that more carbon dioxide could harm plants, since it is one of the main ingredients that plants use to grow, but it turns out that too much carbon dioxide is as unhealthy for plants as too many carbohydrates are for humans. Extra carbon dioxide acts like empty calories or “junk food” for the plants, which gorge themselves on it to grow bigger and faster, consequently getting larger but less nutrient-packed. Just like America’s obesity epidemic, which is partially due to people’s increased access to an abundance of calorie-rich but nutrient-poor food, more is not always better.

Agricultural scientists have known for some time that our food has been getting less nutritious, but they thought it was only due to a byproduct of modern farming methods: soil overuse which leads to mineral depletion, or breeders favoring high-yield varieties, which sacrifices nutrition for size. Meanwhile, plant researchers working over the last couple of decades were finding something surprising: that elevated carbon dioxide also contributes to lowering mineral content in plants.

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