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Could Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Strip Foods of Some Nutrients?

Study suggests significant decline in amounts of zinc, iron as CO2 becomes more abundant in the atmosphere

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In the end, Myers' team concluded that the nutritional threat posed by carbon dioxide is all too real.

"And I think it's very important not to conflate the CO2 issue with climate change," he said. "Because while climate change is, for some, a matter of vigorous debate in terms of how it will unfold, there is no debate about the simple fact that CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. It's rising. And the nutritional impact we have identified here is entirely dependent on that rise, and nothing else."

So is a nutritional calamity inevitable?

"There are two possible avenues to address the issue," Myers said. "One is to try to contain CO2 levels. But the problem is that the CO2 levels that most people believe we'll see by 2050 are expected regardless of any efforts to mitigate against climate change that might theoretically be taken now, because most of the efforts being discussed are about trying to reduce even higher levels of CO2 in the future."

Myers acknowledged the importance of trying to reduce CO2 levels, but "unless we develop some completely unanticipated technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in huge amounts, the nutritional impact we saw will come into play," he said.

"The other avenue is to try and reduce vulnerability by developing crop breeds that are less sensitive to this effect," he suggested. "And there is some grounds for believing that's possible, by, for example, bio-fortifying grains with additional amounts of iron and zinc. Or, on the other hand, launching aggressive global mineral supplementation programs. All of this might help."

Lona Sandon, a registered dietician and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said the situation sounded like "big trouble," given how critical iron and zinc are to health.

"Both are essential nutrients," she said. "Without adequate iron we don't effectively produce red blood cells, which are essential for oxygen delivery to the body's tissues. This can turn into anemia, which causes fatigue and greatly impedes quality of life."

And, "zinc is critical for a functioning immune system. Without it you can't fight off a cold or infection, or heal wounds," Sandon added. "So clearly what this study is saying is that we have a big, big problem," she said.

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