Does climate change adversely affect the nutritional value of food and medicine?

Does climate change adversely affect the nutritional value of food and medicine?

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January 22, 2018

We recently decided at the Center for World Indigenous Studies (CWIS) to inquire into the affects of elevated greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere on the medicinal and pharmacologic benefits of wild harvested sources for indigenous communities. With 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion indigenous peoples significantly dependent on wild harvested foods and medicines—and virtually none of the current research investigating wild harvests and Indigenous Peoples—we saw this as an important responsibility. This is what we have initially found.

The CWIS special “Study on the Effects of Elevated CO2 on the Nutritional Benefits to Human beings of Wild Harvested Plants and Animals” will assess the overall results of studies conducted by indigenous and conventional scholars on the affects of CO2 on plant and animal nutrition. Ultimately the question of this study is how might the possible declining plant and animal nutritional values benefit or harm Indigenous Peoples?

Last September I read Helena Bottemiller Evich’s startling article entitled “The Great Nutrient Collapse” describing Irakli Loladze’s emerging role as a mathematician interested in biology in the then non-existent field of bio-mathematics applied to research about the affects of increased CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere on nutrient concentrations in plants and animals. Loladze began his research with the discovery that zooplankton (tiny animals living at the surface of the ocean reliant on plankton for food) had plenty of food, but they were starving. Loladze published a paper in 2000 with some colleagues that demonstrated exactly that. He then wondered, “… how far this problem might extend.” His initial inquiries revealed that though plants normally rely on carbon dioxide to grow and produce nutrients he wondered if greater levels of CO2 would cause plants to produce more sugar and lower levels of protein and micronutrients such as iron, zinc, copper, magnesium—all of which are essential to healthy human and animal growth. He decided this result might be called the “Junk-food effect.”

Current research suggests that Indigenous Peoples are at a 10% greater risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, malnutrition, and birth defects and those who eat primarily commercially produced foods at 8% greater risk directly due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the planet’s atmosphere. The nutritional content (particularly protein and micronutrients essential for life) in all of the world’s commercially produced plants and animals and wild plants and animals appears to have declined by about one-third over the last 100 years according to Loladzes’ more extensive research.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century greenhouse gases have rapidly increased from what had been normal CO2 atmospheric levels (280 ppm) to a significant jump in the 1950s when greenhouse gases essentially “exploded” to as high as 400 ppm by 2017 (Clearly a product of human activity). See the atmospheric CO2 levels in the National Space and Atmospheric Administration’s (NASA) graphic that depicts the atmospheric change in CO2 levels. What effects has this change had on the food on which humans, plants and all other animals rely. What effect has this change had on wild harvested foods and medicines on which Indigenous Peoples rely?

Climate Change is more than a problem for physical destruction of property, flooding, receding glaciers, and markedly more forceful storms and droughts. And, Climate change is more concerning when plants and animals on which Indigenous Peoples depend shift in location or change in their availability. Climate Change is a global health problem and especially for Indigenous Peoples reliant on foods and medicines from forest, prairies, high deserts, jungles, the ocean, the tundra and other natural earth places supporting life. It is also a massive problem for the whole world’s global population of human beings. CWIS researchers began their effort to assess the magnitude of the problem for Indigenous Peoples.

Climate change adversely effects the nutritional value of food and medicine. That makes it a global health problem.

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There appears to be a direct causal relationship between elevated CO2 atmospheric levels from 280 parts per million to more than 400 parts per million and the decline of protein and micronutrient values in many plants and animals. Human activity (automobile exhausts, oil and gas production, factory animal farms producing pigs, chickens, cattle, turkeys, and other animals, etc.) is clearly responsible for the rapid rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These gases in turn become absorbed in forests, jungles, pastures, and the ocean by plants, soils and insects and that is thought by climate scientists to be a good thing. These are the “carbon sinks” that reduce CO2 produced by humans and from volcanoes and other natural sources. The problem is that when plants absorb too much CO2 the process of photosynthesis becomes high powered and produces more sugars that displace proteins and micronutrients that naturally occur in plants (such as corn, wheat, sorghum) and in animals such as bees, zooplankton, and sea birds that have been studied.

The result is that all animals including human beings consuming these plants may also consume greater amounts of sugar and less protein and micronutrients from commercially produced as well as wild harvest plants and animals. The results, appears to be—in the view of many scholars—increased obesity, diabetes, and essentially malnutrition over time when communities rely solely on natural plants and animals. This means that those Indigenous Peoples who are primarily reliant on wild plants and animals or semi-domesticated plants and animals in the wild face the prospect of increased chronic diseases and malnutrition as a result of excessive human greenhouse gas production.

While commercially produced plant and animal products may be fortified with vitamins, nutrients, protein to replace lost nutrition in an effort to potentially enhance human health, wild harvested plants and animals are not fortified. Natural plants or animals on the land and in the seas on which Indigenous Peoples rely are not artificially fortified. Indeed artificial fortification of foods and medicines may be hazardous to human health too. With plants and animals already nutritionally reduced by one-third since the early part of the 20th century, it is possible that we are already beginning to see the collapse of earth’s food and medicine system. This appears to be the consequence of lower protein and micronutrient consumption in the birth weight declines among Indigenous Peoples and what may be increased levels of malnutrition as well as obesity.
Are we witnessing the collapse of earth’s food and medicine system?

Are we witnessing the collapse of earth’s food and medicine system?

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Finding a solution to the adverse effects of human greenhouse gas production on food and medicinal nutritional value is an urgent matter. Indigenous Peoples are not the source of the problem of elevated greenhouse gases, but like the “Miner’s Canary” indigenous communities may already be showing the world what happens as a result of the ignorant overproduction of waste into the atmosphere—declining health, obesity, diabetes and malnutrition for all of humanity.

Dr. Rudolph C. Rÿser founded the Center for World Indigenous Studies in 1979 and is widely recognized around the world as the principle architect of theories and principles of Fourth World Geopolitics. He is of Cree/Oneida descent on his mother’s side and Swiss descent on his father’s. He is the author of the seminal book Indigenous Nations and Modern States: The Political Emergence of Nations Challenging State Power (2012) and the Fourth World Geopolitical Reader and the Anti Indian Movement on the tribal frontier and Fourth World Theory and Methods of Inquiry in Handbook of Indigenous Knowledge and Research Methods in Developing Countries by IGI, International in 2016.


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