A Warming Planet Could Zap Nutrition From Rice That Feeds The World

Grant Boone
May 25, 2018

The study infers that the higher carbon dioxide level reduced the amount of the vitamins such as the B1, B2, B5, and B9.

Rice is the primary source of food for more than 2 billion people.

"We have some rice varieties that show a stronger response to Carbon dioxide and they are able to convert more of that Carbon dioxide into seed, which can be good", said senior study author Lewis Ziska, a scientist with the Department of Agriculture. "This is an underappreciated risk of burning of fossil fuels and deforestation", study co-author and director of the University of Washington Center for Health and the Global Environment Kristie Ebi said in a statement.

The findings also supported previous research showing rice grown under higher carbon concentrations had less protein, iron and zinc. The nutrient is critical to fetus development, and a lack of vitamin B9 can result in defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord at birth.

The change could be particularly dire in Southeast Asia, where rice is a major part of the daily diet, said the report in the journal Science Advances. Plants, after all, rely on carbon dioxide as an ingredient for photosynthesis, so it seems like more CO2 should be beneficial, helping them grow.

In addition, to the vitamins, there was a reduction of about eight percent in the iron content, about 5.1 percent in the zinc content and about 10.3 percent in the protein content.

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The research "corroborates previous work that we've done, showing that elevated Carbon dioxide alters the protein, iron and zinc content of rice-and, in the case of our work, in other staple food crops, as well", said Samuel Myers, a Harvard University expert on climate change and human health. In both studies, researchers installed pipes that emitted carbon dioxide onto small open-air plots - rather than simply testing crops in enclosed greenhouses - to simulate future real-world conditions. Scientists are trying to understand exactly why some compounds, like vitamin B, get diluted and others do not, or why some varieties of rice see sharper declines in vitamin B than others.

But the new research-and other studies published before it-discredit those claims. The researchers also found that certain B vitamins declined significantly, some by up to 30 percent.

Because of this, Ebi and Ziska said, rice could in fact already be losing some of its nutritional content under current atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations - but the research has not been done at this point to confirm that.

If crop scientists can not solve the problem, larger changes may be needed to blunt the negative effect on nutrition worldwide.

"I think it's crucial and the work we do in [our Centre of Excellence] is more around improving yields - so we're looking more at how to boost the amount of food available to the global population", he said. Currently, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations hover around 410 ppm-but at the rate they're currently rising, they could reach the high levels used in the study by the end of the century, if action isn't taken to curb them. In the rice study, the researchers looked at how crops responded to levels of about 580 parts per million, which could prove tough to avoid this century without drastic changes. "I think culturally it is hard".

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