Forget GMO’s (although did you see Vermont voted GMO labeling into law?), food additives and the Trix Rabbit – the scariest thing to affect our food is now something more global than a single ingredient or process. A LOT more global actually: climate change. According to a new report from the Harvard School of Public Health, the same juggernaut that’s killing rainforests and marooning polar bears on itty bitty ‘bergs is now striking even closer to home by changing our food. The scientists found that increasing levels of CO2 in the air are making plants – particularly grain crops – grow bigger, faster. Yippeee! But there’s a big downside. The plants have less nutrients in them, causing the researchers to predict a growing epidemic of malnutrition – even when there are sufficient calories. “You get big plants but nothing to eat,” they wrote.
I’m an apple junkie. I love apples. Call me uncreative but they’ve always been my favorite fruit. When I was a kid I used to sneak them into my bed at night and hide the cores under my pillow. (A gross habit that my second son apparently inherited. Who knew disgusting housekeeping was genetic?!) I learned quickly as a kid that the biggest apples were the yuckiest – often mushy, tasteless and mealy – while their smaller friends (even of the same variety) were better. So to this day I look for small, firm fruit and try to avoid the super-shiny big-as-your-head beauties. Also, I look for type. Red Delicious are anything but. My faves are SweeTango followed by Honey Crisp and Pacific Rose. I also love me a crunchy green Granny! (Plus, this times ten for strawberries! Those gigantic berries are awesome for dipping but the little tiny organic ones taste the sweetest and juiciest in my opinion, Strawberries aren’t meant to have a hollow core!)
Science supports my apple habits, noting that the larger fruit grows in a shorter time, the less nutrients it has, possibly because it simply has less time in the soil and a greater amount of flesh to distribute them through. And now this effect is showing up on a much larger scale, according to the Harvard study. This is great for people selling the food, terrible for people eating it.
This is something food scientists have been worrying about for decades. It’s been known since the 70’s that thanks to soil depletion, food grown now is markedly decreased in nutrients compared to food grown 100 years ago. And concerns about global warming affecting the food supply, both with availability and transportation, have also been around for awhile. What this new report does is bring the two issues together outside of academia and show the real-world effects.
“The public health implications of global climate change are difficult to predict, and we expect many surprises,” Myers and colleagues concluded in their report. “The finding that raising atmospheric carbon dioxide lowers the nutritional value of (certain) food crops is one such surprise that we can now better predict and prepare for.”
Like many things, this disproportionately affects the poor and already nutritionally vulnerable. For example, the United Nations estimates that 2 – 3 billion people depend on the most affected crops for most of their zinc and iron, and many are already deficient. “Reductions in the zinc and iron content of the edible portion of these food crops will increase the risk of zinc and iron deficiencies across these populations and will add to the already considerable burden of disease associated with them,” the researchers noted.
So what to do besides run around in circles and freak out and/or make sacrificial totems out of plastic bags at the recycling centers? The scientists suggest developing new genetically-modified crops (um, yay?) or hybrids to take advantage of all that bonus CO2, along with new types of fertilizers and crop rotations to help boost soil nutrient availability. And hey, I’m a big fan of science and the ingenuity of mankind (and our will to survive). The educator in me would add that we should add more ag-science classes to schools and encourage more kids into STEM fields.
But for those of us not in agriculture, how should we be preparing? “Prepping” – the trend of storing food, water, medicine and other items in preparation for some kind of disaster – has taken off like wildfire. There are TV shows, books and sites dedicated to the lifestyle. I personally even know a few preppers myself (*cough*Hi Mom!!*cough*) Part of it is that my family are medical science junkies – my mom is an RN – but it’s also because we’re LDS (aka Mormons) and part of our doctrine is to have a year’s supply of food storage. (I’ll let you imagine what a year’s supply of food, toiletries and other items for a family of six looks like. It’s why we had to find a house with a basement…) While I’ve never personally gone through a disaster that necessitated cracking open a #10 can of freeze-dried whatever, when my husband lost his job a few years ago and he was out of work for 8 months it definitely came in handy!! Clearly what seemed woo-woo-out-there a couple of decades ago now just seems smart.
What do you guys think of this latest research – worrisome or over-hyped? Do you do any kind of “prepping”? What’s your favorite kind of apple?