Our species is growing in number. We’re 7 billion strong. And weak. Because nearly ⅓ of us don’t have access to enough food and thus, essential nutrients. It becomes trickier when we add climate change to the mix as it will leave most of us not so secure when it comes to our food.
Yes, climate change is wreaking havoc on our agricultural productivity with floods and droughts becoming a common news headline. But there’s more. While it’s become difficult to feed our growing population, our emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels has also reduced the nutritional quality of the food that we do eat.
How do we keep our nutrition intake secure? Is eating broccoli worth it? Is a plant-based diet really healthy then? Should we start consuming meat? These are just some of the questions we’ll try to answer here.
Does leaf give us grief?
Greens, grains and other plant-based foods provide us with ample nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein, and more.
Not just that, having a plant-based diet in comparison to an animal-based diet is linked to better heart health and a lower risk of dying from a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases. Even the Journal of the American Heart Association believes so.
In fact, when researchers tracked the health of 71,000 Japanese men and women with a plant-based diet, they found that people who eat more plant protein tend to live longer. Well, one may argue that who wants to live longer in a world plagued by poor air and water quality, rising anxiety and further, food insecurity. But, it might be sobering to realise it all boils down to one simple molecule – CO2.
Et tu, CO2?
A little bit of CO2 isn’t bad. It keeps our planet snug and helps plants thrive. It’s the level of CO2 that’s become problematic. Human activities have caused CO2 levels to rise dramatically. When plants take in excess CO2, their chemical makeup changes. They increase the synthesis of carbohydrates like sugars and starches and decrease the concentration of proteins and nutrients like zinc, iron and B-vitamins. And we’re left here wondering, “Hey! Why is my B12 level so damn low?”
Globally, climate change shocks combined with elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are estimated to reduce per person’s growth in nutrient availability of protein, iron, and zinc by 19.5%, 14.4%, and 14.6%, respectively. But the effects are felt disproportionately across the globe.
Rice to wheat you
India, a rice and wheat loving country, may be more susceptible to the potential health consequences of rising CO2. Rice supplies 25% of all global calories. While the consumption level may vary depending on the socioeconomic status, even minor changes in the nutrition levels can disproportionately affect the health of our population.
The case of wheat isn’t much different. It’s been projected that rising CO2 will reduce protein, iron and zinc availability in wheat by 12% in under three decades. We have the highest prevalence of anemia in the world and rising CO2 is going to keep iron availability inadequate at best. What’s more, elevated carbon levels push the average availability of zinc in the region below the threshold of recommended nutrient intake.
You might think, “welp, I’m going to get me some chicken wings”. Well, no, not so quick.
meat, it's devastating to meet you
It’s a vicious cycle. Bear with me. We’re feeding methane burping livestock plants to acquire nutrition. The same livestock that’s adding greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are rendering our plants less nutritious. We continue to feed less nutritious plants to the livestock to acquire even lower amounts of nutrition. We continue to add greenhouse gases in our atmosphere that’s further driving down the nutritional capacity of our plants. It’s a vicious cycle.
Not to mention the rising deforestation and the way the industry is wreaking havoc on our water sources. Animal-based diet is making our planet less habitable, and our food less nutritious. Its consumption is also making a large chunk of our population susceptible to cardiovascular diseases and even cancer.
Meat simply is never the answer.
Where to now?
- From animal-based to plant-based
Having a plant-based diet demands more land be utilized for varying plants instead of just feed and pasture for livestock. This will reduce the level of deforestation that makes it difficult to sequester atmospheric CO2.
- Permaculture and beyond
Permaculture is an agriculture system that facilitates coexistence of competing species. Its foundation lies in biodiversity. It creates a system where plants naturally help each other grow. One small example of this can be found in Telangana on a 10 acre farm that grows custard apple, passion fruit, teak, almond, gooseberry, moringa and more together.
A plant-based diet will lower the level of CO2 and stop our plants from losing nutrients in the future. This will help us combat malnutrition, and missing micronutrients from our day to day as our population continues to grow.