Roti, rice and lentils with unripe mango served on plates in Auar village in Pratapgarh district, Uttar Pradesh. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)

Indians Are Most Vulnerable To Nutrient Deficiency As CO2 Levels Rise

The food that Indians eat will turn a lot less nutritious in the next three decades, leading to deficiency on an epidemic scale. And rising carbon-dioxide emissions across the globe may be to blame.

That's according to a new study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which has estimated that rising carbon levels will drive an additional 175 million people to zinc deficiency and 122 million to protien deficiency by 2050.

India, that’s expected to be the world’s most populous country by then, will also bear the greatest burden. “India alone is the largest contributor to all 3 nutritional vulnerabilities: 50 million additional people to the newly zinc-deficient population, 38 million newly protein deficient, and 502 million women of childbearing age and children under 5 who are vulnerable to disease resulting from increasing iron deficiency,” the research, published yesterday in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Climate Change, said.

Indians Are Most Vulnerable To Nutrient Deficiency As CO2 Levels Rise

That’s alarming for a country which is already grappling with widespread micro-nutrient deficiency. More than two-thirds of Indians are affected by deficiencies in micro-nutrients like protein, iron, zinc and vitamin A, according to a research by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis using data from the National Sample Survey of Consumption Expenditure. In fact, 90 percent Indians are anemic, leading to lower life expectancy.

In particular, India has shown inconsistent gains in addressing under-nutrition and nutritional deficiencies.
Impact Of Anthropogenic CO2 Emissions On Global Human Nutrition

The Indian diet predominantly comprises wheat, the lesser-nutritious polished white rice, pulses and vegetables. Besides, India has the world’s second lowest meat consumption, a key provider of proteins and iron, according to FAOSTAT. All these factors combined put Indians at risk the most, followed by countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the research noted.

Climate change is already known to threaten food security as extreme weather events can cause crop failures. This research brings to light how it can further add to the problem worsening malnutrition. The researchers—Samuel Myers and Matthew R. Smith—estimate that atmospheric carbon dioxide will surpass 550 parts per million in the next 30 years. And crops grown under such conditions are expected to have 3-17 percent less iron and zinc compared with current conditions where carbon levels are just over 400 ppm. They used age- and sex-specific food supply datasets in each country to estimate the impact across 225 different foods that'd be impacted by nutrient shifts in crops.

“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,” said Samuel Myers, lead author of the study and principal research scientist at Harvard Chan School, in a media statement. “We cannot disrupt most of the biophysical conditions to which we have adapted over millions of years without unanticipated impacts on our own health and well-being”.

Our goal was to bring focus to what appears to be a significant threat to global nutrition and to highlight those countries that, because of their diet and current health status, should remain careful in monitoring their vulnerability to these effects.
Impact Of Anthropogenic CO2 Emissions On Global Human Nutrition

The researchers emphasised that the over 2 billion people that are already living with with nutritional deficiencies would likely see their conditions worsen as a result of less nutritious crops.

They suggested using different plant varieties of certain food crops that are less susceptible to carbon dioxide sensitivity. In addition, they said biofortification of crops with nutrients using agricultural techniques that've showed early promise may also be possible. “Also, national fortification and supplementation programmes,” the study said, “may ameliorate nutritional deficiencies, particularly for targeted vulnerable groups.”

The full research can be read here.