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OUT OF THIS WORLD | What's Up In Climate Change - a glance at the most important news about our warming world

Hundreds of millions at risk of malnutrition, here's why

Isabella O'Malley
Digital Writer/Climate Change Reporter

Wednesday, August 29, 2018, 3:23 PM - Climate change is making food less nutritious, an environmental win for the Arctic, how air pollution harms your kidneys, and the counterintuitive results of conservation announcements. It's What's Up in Climate Change.


Rising carbon emissions are making rice and wheat less nutritious, and a new study reports that by 2050 over 175 million people will become zinc deficient, 122 million people will be protein deficient, and more than 1 billion women and children could lose a large proportion of dietary iron intake.

These deficiencies can cause serious health implications such as increased risk of anemia, impaired cognitive function, autoimmune diseases, and psychological disorders. The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is around 410 parts per million (ppm), and current climate projections show that the carbon concentration could increase to 550 ppm in the next few decades, which means serious changes in the atmosphere that crops are used to growing in.

The different atmospheric composition will alter the nutrient contents of the crops that grow in them and have outcomes such as higher carbohydrate content, lower protein content, and decreased zinc and iron levels between 3-17 per cent compared to current conditions. Plants provide the majority of nutrients for most people's diets globally - vegetable sources provide 63 per cent of dietary protein, 81 per cent of iron, and 68 per cent of zinc, and are critical for optimal health.

Rising carbon emissions reduce the nutrition of staple foods and increase drought conditions, which will make it challenging to feed Earth's growing population. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The regions most at risk include India, China, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, whereas many countries in North America, South America, and Western Europe are at a lower risk due to diets that are heavy in animal-sourced foods. Majority of the countries most at risk for increasing rates of malnutrition already have high proportions of the population suffering from one or more deficiency, and increasing carbon levels could exacerbate the existing health burdens related to nutritional deficiencies.

The study notes that the world has made considerable improvements in improving global nutrition over the past couple decades, but the gains have been uneven and some of the highest-risk areas have seen minimal progress. India has made significant progress in reducing the rate of underweight children since 1990, but nearly 35 per cent of Indian children are still underweight, whereas the developing country average is approximately 20 per cent.

The researchers state that projections were made assuming dietary patterns stayed more or less the same, even though projecting future diets is subject to large uncertainty. Demographic, economic trends, and climate change all play large roles in the global production, availability, and distribution of food, and unfortunately the countries that are currently struggling the most with malnutrition are likely to be hit the hardest by lowered crop quality due to climate change.


Some Arctic regions are void of humans for hundreds of kilometres, but traces of human-made pollutants appear in snow and animals. This is because atmospheric circulation patterns transport pollution across the globe towards the Arctic where they settle and contaminate wildlife and the environment. Polar bears are one species that suffer from transported pollutants, as they have been shown to cause brain damage and hormonal disruption, which affects their population's livelihood. Governments and other organizations have implemented various efforts and studies to prevent the Arctic from transported pollution and the subsequent human health consequences when the contaminants enter the food chain, and a new study shows that market removal and increased regulation have proven to be effective strategies.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The data shows that legacy persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic, pollutants that remain in the environment for a long time after they are emitted and do not easily degrade, have declined over the past 20-30 years, and the only increases of POPs occurred from local sources. This is likely due to the recent introduction of national and international regulations that control the emitted amounts of certain pollutants and the voluntary phasing out of producing perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in the United States. The data linked the decrease in contaminants with the United Nations Stockholm Convention in 2001, an international treaty signed by 152 countries to restrict, minimize, or eliminate the production of the 12 most common POPs.

Despite successful regulations and market removals, banned pollutants are still found in the environment in levels that could cause adverse effects to human, animal and environmental health. Recently, a mysterious source of a banned greenhouse gas, CFC-11, had been tracked down to 18 factories in China that had been secretly emitting the pollutant since 2012. Even though international regulations are effective at controlling pollution, small companies still continue to find loopholes and hidden methods to conduct dangerous production.


A new study is adding to the long list of negative health impacts we experience from air pollution. While it has been known for some time that inhaling polluted air can cause infections and disease, new research shows that fine particulate matter, specifically air particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5), is connected to chronic kidney disease (CKD), a common condition that typically causes loss of kidney function over time and carries an increased risk of death, cardiovascular disease, and end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

The extremely small size of PM2.5 allows these particles to deeply penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream, which causes inflammation and interferes with regular functioning. Combustion activities, like car emissions and wood burning, are a source of PM2.5, which has a relatively large surface area that can carry other toxins on it, such as heavy metals. The study analyzed over 1 million adults above the age of 65 years in the United States to investigate the link between their health and PM2.5 concentrations in regions that the individuals lived.

A blanket of smog sits over Mexico City in 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The results indicate a clear pattern of higher CKD prevalence in large central metropolitan areas. Overall the analysis found that 17.2 per cent of the individuals had CKD, 18.4 per cent prevalence in large central metropolitan areas, and a decreasing trend of 16 per cent and 15.1 per cent in micropolitan and non-core counties, respectively. In areas with polluting combustion activities, such as the Ohio Valley that is populated with coal mining plants, men had a 19 per cent higher relative risk of developing CKD and a 13 per cent higher relative risk for women compared to non-mining counties. In light of the US EPA’s proposal to revitalize the domestic coal industry, the risks for developing CKD could dramatically increase.

Kidneys are sensitive to both climate change and increasing amounts of air pollution - previous research has noted that the warming temperatures can increase the chance of kidney stones by causing higher rates of dehydration. As more air pollution research is produced, it will likely reveal that air pollution has harmful effects for the entire body, not just one group of organs and will add to the urgency for increasing air pollution regulation and mitigation efforts to prevent a public health crisis.


Before a large-scale effort to deal with an environmental problem is announced, there is typically mounting evidence for why the issue must be addressed and attention from those that both support and oppose action. The trending plastic straw bans are raising awareness of how climate change and pollution are harming oceans, and a new study has discovered that discussing these issues in advance could lead to a preemptive resource extraction before the conservation initiative is implemented.

Overfishing harms marine ecosystems and careless waste disposal practices contribute to a significant amount of ocean pollution. The researchers studied the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) located in the central Pacific and found that as soon as the area announced it would eventually receive a protected status, fishers more than doubled their fishing efforts. If other marine areas announced similar intentions to restrict fishing activities to improve the environmental conditions, it is expected that the share of over-extracted fisheries would temporarily increase from 65 to 72 per cent.

A U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment member and a Ghanaian navy sailor inspect a fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing during the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It is reasoned that humans are highly inclined to form expectations in response to new information and can perform preemptive behaviours that undermines intended policy goals. The researchers provide a comparative example of the gun control debate in the US - a mass shooting can spike firearms sales because some Americans fear gun control legislation will prevent these purchases.

Regulating resource extraction from marine areas are proven to be effective in increasing biodiversity and improving marine health. The recommendations from this study include increased monitoring of fishing activities globally and reducing policy design periods so there is a shorter transition into the new regulation and less opportunity to spike harmful fishing practices.

Sources: Nature - Climate Change | Science of The Total Environment | PLOS one | PNAS

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