Over at The Conversation the panic is rising. Life is not going to be the same. Get ready for the bland future — if we stop all plant breeding tomorrow, and don’t change our fertilizers at all, it possible, by 2050, in dry years, wheat may have a 6% decrease in protein.
It’s that serious.
Everyone likes the high protein kind of wheat, and it’s worth more. Glenn Fitzgerald, at The Conversation argues that Australian wheat is going to be lower in protein, and downgraded, making us less competitive and our farmers poorer. (Cynics among us note that authors at The Conversation only seem to care about farmers when climate change might hurt them, not when climate-change-action actually sends them broke, makes them homeless or puts them in jail. Y’know — whatever.)
As for Australia’s export earnings, I say, forgive me, but I thought the CO2 elevation was a global thing — so unless we are competing with aliens and intergalactic wheat, color me unconcerned. All the wheat producers on Earth will be dealing with the same issue.
How to make a good thing sound bad
The bottom line in biology is that because CO2 is plant food, and makes the molecular carbon backbone of carbon-life-forms, if there is more of it in the air, plants grow faster and the extra carbon will dilute everything else.
The benefits of carbon dioxide are greatest in dry years because CO2 makes it easier for plants to cope with less water and droughts. It takes some effort to construe this as a bad thing, but with enough government funding, and years of academic training, it’s possible. (Thank Glenn Fitzgerald, Honorary Associate Professor of Agriculture and Food, University of Melbourne).
Carbon dioxide is such a basic part of biology — plants wake up in the morning and drink in the CO2 from the air around them. In a cornfield, the plants will even change the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the air over the field. By lunchtime every day, CO2 will have dropped, and growth slows. Carbon dioxide is that important.
This graph from Chapman in 1954 really shows how intrinsic CO2 is:
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be discussing this, or preparing for it, but honestly, Climate change will make bread taste bad? Fergoodnesssake.
Our lower protein diet, solved with a chickpea
Fitzgerald tells us that people might be malnourished because of nutrient changes thanks to excess CO2. We’ve been through this line of thinking before. The problem is so easy to solve, yet so obviously missed by our experts.
Even if the projected protein deficiency occurs in wheat, it is so small and irrelevant that all we have to do is eat slightly less wheat and slightly more of nearly anything else bar other grains. I calculated that a person could make up for the deficiencies in rice-of-the-future by swapping some rice for a chickpea: specifically, one extra chickpea for every 100g of rice:
According to the USDA nutrient profiles Gelatinous White Rice, Cooked (doesn’t that sound delicious) has all of 0.14mg of iron per 100 grams and 0.41mg of zinc. Chick peas on the other hand have 2.89mg of iron per 100g and 1.53mg of zinc. So chickpeas have 20 times the iron content, and 3.7 times the zinc content. In other words, to solve a shortage of a 10% reduction in iron and zinc in rice, the average person eating 100g of rice would need to eat an extra 2.6 grams of chickpeas (or is that chickpea, singular?). As a bonus they would be getting five times more iron than what they are missing out on in the rice.
Wheat is richer than rice, and contains significant protein for people without access to meat. But a mere 5- 10% deficiency is still easily solveable with a shift in dietry composition. Indeed, even if all food types became slightly diluted (like if poorer grain-feed leads to poorer beef steak) the principle still works.
Where are the grownups when you need them?