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Higher Levels of Carbon Dioxide Make Rice Less Nutritious

Burning fossil fuels affects more than just the climate.

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As 2.4 billion pounds per second of carbon dioxide is pouring into the atmosphere, essential nutrients found in rice, such as protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins, are all dropping, posing a threat to the 2 billion people who depend on this food source everyday.

So we’re not just changing the climate by burning fossil fuels, we’re also changing the food we eat, according to a study in Science Advances.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere keep increasing, as they reached a record high in April, and since this greenhouse gas helps plants grows, its radically changing the nutrient content in food crops.

“Earlier studies have found that staples like barley and potatoes have seen their carbohydrate levels go up and protein content go down as CO2 levels have ticked upward. And experiments show that as CO2 emissions continue to rise, critical nutrients will decline further, even as we harvest more beans, grains, and seeds,” according to Vox.

As of today, 1 billion people are tagged food-insecure, or lacking a reliable food source, and 795 million are malnourished, and these numbers will only increase if essential foods stop providing basic nutrition.

In the new study, scientists exposed rice to higher CO2 concentrations and found an average of 10.3% drop in protein, 8% drop in iron, 5.1% drop in iron, 12.7% drop in B5 vitamin levels and a 30% drop in B9 vitamin levels among all tested varieties.

This is concerning to the 10 countries that rely heavily on rice as their main source of food and nutrition, and scientists don’t know exactly why CO2 reduces plant nutrients.

“We have a firm possibility of a definite maybe of several things. It’s not a one-size-fits-all explanation,” said Lewis Ziska, a research plant physiologist at the US Department of Agriculture and a co-author of the new study.

Some possibilities include that the CO2 takes the place of other nutrients, diminishing the need for them, or that as crops produce more grains the nutrients are in turn diluted, or the fact that CO2 causes the plant’s stomates, pores in plant leaves, to close, changing the water flow and potentially affecting how water-soluble nutrients react.

But all hope is not lost; there are already some potential solutions to the future problem, ranging from varying diets to engineering crops.

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Gigi Foster is a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She's a midfielder on the women's soccer team and is studying ocean sciences.

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