New Study Makes It Harder for Activists to Be Against Everything All the Time

Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathanan/Bloomberg
Wheat being harvested last month in Panipat, Haryana, India.

Feeding everybody in the world has always been a challenge. Feeding them well just got even tougher.

Some of the most important crops that people grow -- wheat, barley, rice, beans -- deliver a lot less nutrition when there's more carbon dioxide in the air, according to a new study in the journal Nature. The scientists grew rice, wheat, maize, soybeans, field peas and sorghum with carbon dioxide turned up to approximately double the pre-industrial atmospheric level, which the atmosphere could hit late this century.

They're not sure why plants aren't taking up the nutrients. The fact that it happens at all is sobering.

About 2.3 billion people receive more than 60 percent of their dietary zinc and iron from the crops in question. Many can't afford to let that slip. Zinc and Iron deficiency already cuts short human lives by a cumulative total of about 63 million years, every year.

"The public health implications of global climate change are difficult to predict," the authors write, "and we expect many surprises."

This is one of them. The researchers suggest that by being aware of the problem, people can now better predict and prepare for it. That could mean aggressive breeding, dietary supplements or "biofortification" -- jargonese for techniques and technologies that include food that's been genetically modified, known as GMOs.

GMOs could help people adapt to life in a high-carbon world by supplying missing nutrients. That's an iron-fortified pickle for anyone fighting against both climate change and GMOs. In climate-friendly Vermont, the governor today is expected to sign a bill requiring that foods made with GMO ingredients be labeled accordingly.

Scientists haven't identified genetically modified foods as a threat, which means a lot of the debate about GMOs could be getting in the way of making sure the food system is secure.

"You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food," Mark Lynas, a science writer and environmental activist, said in a speech last year about how he learned to stop worrying and love GMOs.

Would that the same could be said about rising temperatures.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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