A small but growing number of beleaguered researchers is challenging the mightiest financial powers on earth to proclaim an increasingly obvious fact: worldwide pollution is robbing all growing crops of their nutritional value. It has been well known for a while — and argued vehemently by climate change deniers — that elevated levels of carbon dioxide pollution in the air stimulate the growth of plants. (“See?” the deniers said gleefully, “pollution is good for you!”) But what is now becoming apparent is that at the same time the carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth, it reduces plant nutrition. More, it turns out, is not necessarily better. Who knew?
The man who is now the leading proponent of this idea, Irakli Loladze, is now at Bryan College of Health Sciences in Lincoln, Nebraska. He first stumbled on the concept in 1998 when he was a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. He encountered some biology researchers who were finding that when they stimulated the growth of algae in a closed system, the zooplankton, the little critters that fed on the algae, did not flourish, but actually declined. Loladze desperately wanted to find out why, to see if the problem had wider implications, but there were two big problems.
First, nobody wants to hear about the limits of growth,or the problems associated with growth. Second, Loladze he was a mathematician, and as such was not entitled to know anything about biology. “It was year after year, rejection after rejection,” he said. The funders of mathematical research said there was too much biology in his proposals, and the funders of biological research said there was too much math. (If you didn’t know that the funding of scientific research is about as rational and helpful as the funding of political candidates, I’ll give you a moment here to breathe into a brown paper bag….)
Loladze was warned, but, as they say now, he persisted. He began to get funding, do research, and publish papers. Others, intrigued by what he was finding, joined in, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture (wait, does Donald know about this?). They have now pretty clearly established that during the past 30 years, 130 varieties of plants (the so-called C3 plants, most important to human diets) have lost eight per cent of their mineral nutrients and have started to produce more sugars (carbohydrates) and less protein. In other words, growing rice, corn, wheat and vegetables, organic or not, are slowly turning into junk food in the field, whether it’s an industrial field or a home garden plot. And these changes have tracked with the increase in carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere.
Let’s be clear. It is not the case that climate change is the cause, or a cause, of this problem. Rather, carbon dioxide pollution, which is a primary cause of climate change, is also the primary cause of this problem.
How could it be a surprise to anyone, even a highly educated scientist, that excessive growth is harmful? We have engineered chickens to grow faster for eight weeks so we can have big-breasted broilers, and what we got are chickens that cannot live longer than eight weeks because they can’t carry their hideously enlarged breasts and their cardiovascular system can’t keep their living bodies from starting to rot.
We have worshipped endless, faster growth in our population, our economic system and our egos, until we stand at the utter limits of our planet’s ability to sustain our lives. And now we’re surprised that endlessly growing pollution is not good for us?
Even a mathematician knows better than that.