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Why CO2 will cause a malnutrition crisis in India

CO2 threat to rice fields. Copyright: <a href=''>catherinelprod / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Farmers working a rice field in Puducherry.

Tens of millions of Indians face nutritional deficiencies in the coming decades because of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution, a recent study suggests.

Rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are killing crop quality in India. This means commonly consumed foodstuffs in the country, such as rice and wheat, will lose much of their nutritional value. This carries the potential to cause health complications in vast swathes of the population.

As many as fifty million Indians could be zinc deficient and 38 million Indians could be protein deficient by 2050, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Perhaps most concerningly, iron deficiency could plague a total of 502 million women and children under five. This would leave them vulnerable to conditions such as anaemia, which already affects 51 percent of Indian women in the 15-49 age bracket – more than any other country in the world.

“Rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are killing crop quality in India…This carries the potential to cause health complications owing to malnutrition in vast swathes of the population”

CO2. Copyright: <a href=''>amlanmathur / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Smog in the skies of Gurgaon. CO2 emissions are not only impacting the skies of India, but also the crops. 

India will bear the brunt of the world’s population suffering nutritional deficiencies owing to C02 emissions, the study warns. Its approximations are based on projections that, by 2050, CO2 concentration will reach 550 parts per million (ppm). In those conditions, concentrations of nutrients such as protein, iron and zinc in crops could drop by between three and seventeen percent.

There have been numerous studies in the past that indicate carbon dioxide increases plant growth. As CO2 is a primary chemical component of photosynthesis, it is vital to the plant. However, research suggests that higher CO2 leads to higher carbohydrate concentration in the plant, meaning calorie content and growth of the plant is higher but nutritional density falls.

Undernourishment already affects 14.5 percent of India’s population – amounting to more than 190 million people. India also has the worst rate of child malnutrition in the world. With air pollution poised to exacerbate this situation, this should lend impetus for India to make headway in reducing its CO2 emissions.

In 2014, India accounted for seven percent of the world’s carbon emissions – the fourth highest in the world, after China, the United States, and the European Union. Since 1971, India’s carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 1,071 percent, resulting in immense levels of pollution at substantial cost to public health.

The anticipated impact in terms of malnutrition is yet the latest signal that India cannot afford to ignore its rising pollution levels. Public health will suffer if it does.

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