OPINION:- Proper nutrition is needed to defeat COVID. Rising atmospheric CO2 makes that harder.

Friday, 4 September 2020 10:38 GMT

A sign hangs from empty shelves, prior to California's Governor Gavin Newsom's effective immediately statewide "stay at home order”, in the face of the fast-spreading pandemic coronavirus (COVID-19), Safeway supermarket in Napa, California, U.S. March 19, 2020. Picture taken March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Carbon dioxide can lower the nutritional quality of the food we consume

Lewis H. Ziska, PhD is an associate professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

Himanshu Gupta is the CEO of ClimateAI. 

Whether it is the long-spaced lines at checkout, the bare shelves, or not finding the ingredients to prepare your favorite comfort food, we have all been given a stark reminder that environmental disasters like Covid-19 can do more than disrupt our healthcare - they can also fracture our food system.

Such fractures are concerning, because food security and access to proper nutrition are intimately linked to good health, from Covid-19 to heart disease, from cancer to diabetes, proper diet and nutrition remain a key deterrent in our medical arsenal. 

But if nutrition is vital to helping defeat Covid-19, it is important to recognize another challenge - the ongoing increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide has already risen by 20% since the 1980s and may increase another 50% by centuries end - and while we recognize carbon dioxide as the primary global warming gas, it does something else as well, it can lower the nutritional quality of the food we consume. 

Yes, plants get their carbon from carbon dioxide, but plants do not live by carbon alone. And herein lies a dilemma.  Because while carbon, as carbon dioxide, is rapidly increasing in the atmosphere, nutrients from the soil - iron, and zinc; potassium and nitrogen, are not. Yet plants need these elements to make the amino acids, proteins, lipids, vitamins that are essential for human nutrition - and to fight disease. So aside from climate change, the ongoing increase in CO2 is resulting in a global nutritional imbalance - plants are becoming carbon rich, but nutrient poor. And there will be consequence for human nutrition - and our response to disease, including pandemics.  

It is tempting from an American perspective to ignore nutritional threats. But nutritional integrity is not isolated among poverty-stricken villages. A study published this July by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlights that diet related illnesses in the United States are increasing as well, with inadequate nutrition recognized as a leading cause, killing over half a million people each year. On top of the lost income, unemployment spiral and barren food shelves we have observed with Covid-19, this means millions more people are likely to be malnourished in the United States, especially among the poor. A situation expected to be exacerbated as CO2 continues to rise.

But we are trying. Professor Toshihiro Hasegawa at Tohuku research center is using cutting edge technology to screen for better nutritionally adapted varieties of rice as carbon dioxide rises. And Howard Yana Shapiro of Mars, Inc. co-founded the Africa Orphan Crops consortium to sequence, annotate and assemble the genomes of 101 indigenous crops. The initiative is allowing scientists to improve the nutritional quality of crops in a continent ravaged by Covid-19.

These efforts are not strictly academic. Ardent Mills, a niche flour supplier based in Colorado incentivises farmers to grow high protein wheat in the U.S that finds its way into their bread. Nestle just implemented  the voluntary Nutri Score scheme in Spain and Portugal on its products, ranking food from “healthy” to “less healthy”.

Such efforts are useful - inspiring.  But we need to recognize that the Covid-19 / nutrition contest is not solitary, but one facet of a global challenge---how do we ensure that food and nutrition are available for all, as a basic means to fight disease - and how do we do so at a time when rising carbon dioxide poses a global obstacle? 

We can do so by reminding ourselves that while individuals’ matter, merit lies in unification, in fighting - together - for a cause.  As a country, we established a national land-grant system of unrivaled colleges and universities. As a country, we helped to defeat fascism and communism. As a country, we were instrumental in putting men on the moon.

And, together, as a country, we can do more, and meet the most fundamental of human challenges, to use our science, our humanity, our political will, to ensure that basic nutritional needs of each are met - to ensure the health of all.