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Rising Levels of Carbon Dioxide Can Lead to Nutritional Deficiencies in Hundreds of Millions, Study Says

Rising carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere from cars and industrial pollution may deplete critical nutrients in crops, leaving hundreds of millions of people at risk of becoming nutritionally deficient within the next few decades, according to a new study.

The effects of carbon dioxide on staple crops such as rice and wheat can leave 175 million people zinc deficient and 122 million people protein deficient by 2050, the study by researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows. Furthermore, over 1 billion women and children could lose a large portion of their iron intake, putting them at risk for anemia and other illnesses.

“Our research makes it clear that decisions we are making every day—how we heat our homes, what we eat, how we move around, what we choose to purchase—are making our food less nutritious and imperiling the health of other populations and future generations,” Sam Myers, the lead author of the study, which was published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, said in a statement.

An earlier study that Myers co-authored found that certain crops will grow with 3% to 17% lower concentrations of zinc, protein, and iron when carbon dioxide levels rise to 550 parts per million compared to crops grown in current conditions (just over 400 ppm).

Around the world, 2 billion people already suffer from malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization. The effects of carbon dioxide from pollution created by humans could worsen the situation dramatically, with India feeling the greatest impact, according to the new study. Other countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East would also be strongly affected.