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Deeply Talks: Understanding the Impact of Climate Change on Nutrition

Drs. Irakli Loladze and Kristie Ebi explain the impact of climate change on nutrition, and point to the need for more investment in cross-disciplinary research to develop potential solutions.

Written by Amruta Byatnal Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Vietnamese farmer worker in a rice paddy field in Hoi An, Quang Nam province.Getty Images

Our most recent Deeply Talks episode explored the emerging science on how climate change is impacting the nutritional value of food.

A major study published recently in Science Advances revealed how rice grown in higher levels of carbon dioxide has reduced amounts of key nutrients. This will have a significant impact, particularly on communities that depend on rice as a vital source of nutrition. The researchers involved in the study say it is now imperative to begin unpacking what this could mean for consumers, policymakers and the private sector.

Andrew Green, the managing editor of Malnutrition Deeply, spoke to two of the study’s authors: Irakli Loladze, associate professor at the Bryan College of Health Sciences, and Dr. Kristie Ebi, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE) at the University of Washington.

You can listen to the episode here or read an edited and condensed transcript below, featuring highlights from the discussion with Drs. Ebi and Loladze.

Malnutrition Deeply: Can you walk us through the key findings in the paper?

Kristie Ebi: The experiments, that are called free air carbon dioxide enrichment experiments or FACE, will tell you what would happen in a future world where you have higher concentrations of carbon dioxide. And based on earlier work, the study found what would be expected from rice fields in Japan and in China with increased concentration of carbon dioxide. A very large reduction in protein, for iron and for zinc is expected later in the century. Iron and zinc were the only micronutrients that were tested, but there’s reasons to believe that other micronutrients would decline as well.

These results are deeply concerning about maternal and child health. The reductions could affect as many as 600 million people in Southeast Asia who rely heavily on rice. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia, even as they’re developing, continue to have a major portion of their diet as rice. For example in Bangladesh, three out of four calories on average comes from rice. And this could have profound consequences for nutrition for large portions of the world’s climate.

Malnutrition Deeply: What challenges did you run into while trying to get people interested to fund this research?

Irakli Loladze: Back in 2002 I was doing post-doctoral work at Princeton and published in a top journal, and logically proved the link between rising CO2 and human nutrition. I thought things had kind of gone well, but then what followed was just pain and more pain. I’m still puzzled as to reasons, and one … is that, at the time the data was limited, and biologists, of course, need evidence and it took years to get the evidence. But also it’s a cross-disciplinary problem at its heart. It goes from the environment to plant physiology to human nutrition and human health, and specialists in each discipline would look at it from their perspective and since they’ve never heard of the issue as experts, they would think it’s not a big issue.

Malnutrition Deeply: As you mentioned this is deeply concerning, some of these findings, particularly in places where the diet is dependent on rice. What are the policy implications of your research?

Ebi: The answer is equally deeply concerning. The media has found this study fascinating. There has been extensive media coverage on this issue and yet the funding just isn’t there. There’s very limited research going into this field. And so most of the work that was done for this paper was done for free. People are concerned about this research, there was efforts to put this information together, but we volunteered our time. Funders aren’t coming to us saying there’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and certainly governments haven’t come to me, saying what are we going in to do about this. We hope that as more media coverage takes place, that it will filter through to the funders and to governments to start taking this issue quite seriously.

An area where concern comes in is that when you look, for example, at iron. Iron deficiency anemia affects twice as many people as food insecurity. And yet the typical response from the health sector has been to give people a pill to try and give people iron tablets to increase their iron. And certainly that works, but if it worked really well, we wouldn’t have 2 billion people who are iron deficient. And so the responses are going to have to be multi-factorial, they’re going to have to be multi-sectoral. We’re going to have to look at ways to get people to have more diverse diets, we’re going to have to look at new technologies. We’re going to have to do quite a bit of research to develop a basket of options so that countries can prepare, make sure that they’ve put in place the kinds of policies and technologies that are needed to reduce this growing impact.

Malnutrition Deeply: What do you want to do next with your research?

Loladze: In terms of what to do next, one question that is really interesting to me that affects people in both developing and developed countries, is that it’s not just that minerals drop but the ratio of carbohydrates to proteins will increase significantly. We’re talking about any one plant, 20-30 percent increase in this ratio and ratio carbohydrates to minerals increases. With every bite of our food, we’re getting slightly more starches and sugars and less nutrients.

If we’re going to consume hundreds of kilograms of these extra empty calories, what is the effect on diabetes or on obesity? And that’s an open question, there’s no answer right now.

Malnutrition Deeply: Has there been any other pushback that you’ve received that you wanted to respond to?

Ebi: There’s been a range of responses on the health side of, basically, this is not a problem, either we’ll give everybody pills, the compliance on that is not shown to be very good, [or] we’ll make people wealthier and they’ll change their diets. But many of the countries in Southeast Asia as they develop have not fundamentally changed how much they rely on rice. This is going to ripple through the food chain in ways we absolutely don’t understand.

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