Junk Food Planet
As if we needed more bad news about the environment, two new developments show that things are even worse than we thought. You know how climate deniers like to say that the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the better it is for the plants Yeah, they’re wrong about that, too. It seems like it should be right, because plants take in CO2 and release oxygen. What’s happening, though, is that while plants are growing faster, they contain less protein and nutrients. As Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich writes in “The Great Nutrient Collapse,” the faster growth causes plants to produce more simple carbohydrates (sugars), and less protein, micronutrients, and essential minerals, chiefly iron. Part of this is soil depletion, which I’ll get to later.
Basically, plants that used to contain complex carbohydrates and other good stuff are now producing the equivalent of junk food, mainly sugars and other empty carbohydrates. That means that in areas of high food insecurity there will be increased malnutrition, and where food supplies are abundant, people have to eat more for the same nutrients, resulting in increased obesity. Another report from last April by the U.S. Global Research Program calls it a “potential threat to human health.” Two billion people are already deficient in zinc and iron supplied by green plants (not so much with legumes). The NCBI (National Center for Biotech Information), a division of the National Institute of Health, published a report on June 5m 2014, titled “Rising CO2 Threatens Human Nutrition.”
Most plants grown for food are called C3 plants, and occur in more temperate climates. These include legumes, wheat, rice, and potatoes. By analyzing plant specimens at the vast Smithsonian plant collection, which goes back to 1842, researchers found that protein content has declined by 30% since the Industrial Revolution. Plants are also down 8% in calcium, zinc, potassium, and iron. Dietary iron deficiency is already fueling anemia, another severe health problem in poverty-stricken areas. The same results have been duplicated in China, Japan, and Australia.
The other half of the one-two punch is soil depletion, greatly exacerbated by modern industrial farming. Monocultures grown by food giants like Monsanto degrade the soil in many ways. Typical fertilizers contain mainly the so-called NPK mixture of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, neglecting other important elements and minerals. Overuse of pesticides and herbicides (like Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). These chemicals kill everything but the food crop, genetically modified to resist the poisons, hence the term “Roundup Ready.” The microorganisms in the soil are killed, too, as are beneficial insects like pollinators. This is what you get when the only emphasis is on increasing crop yields, leading to increased profits. The Earth has become just another commodity, to be bought and sold on the open market.
Even thousands of tilling and cultivating the soil is damaging. Topsoil is the top three inches or so. Just a teaspoon contains more microorganisms than there are humans on Earth.
Tilling disturbs and redistributes microorganisms from their comfort layer. Further, within that topsoil is a network of fungal threads called mycelia, which are severed by tilling. And another rarity in farming these days is crop rotation. Each crop takes certain nutrients from the soil, while decomposition returns others. By rotating crops, the soil is kept more biologically diverse, and healthy.
What is the result of this madness? Loss of topsoil, which is becoming another serious threat to human health, if not our very survival. There was a recent article in Scientific American by Maria-Helena Semedo, of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. She reported that a third of the world’s topsoil has already been degraded. If this trend continues, all of the world’s topsoil will be gone in 60 years. It takes 1000 years to create just 3 cm (1 ¼ inch) of topsoil. Other methods cause topsoil loss, besides monocultures and chemical farming. Newer varieties of wheat and rice bred for greater crop yield are lower in protein than older strains. Deforestation, which increases erosion, also reduces valuable topsoil. Global warming takes its toil as well, as it leads to increased evaporation of soils.
Complicating the Earth’s warming is the melting of polar ice, especially in the Arctic, which of course was brought on by global warming. Less ice to reflect the sun’s heat and more dark water to absorb it, and warming increases still further. What’s worse, it threatens to expose ancient pockets of methane, which, while shorter-lived in the atmosphere, is about 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas. Even if we completely stopped emitting carbon on a planet-wide basis, we’re probably cooked by the end of the century anyway, just from the damage already done.
I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about all the positive things going on, like renewable energy, recycling, and other technological fixes. Geoengineering is a newer field that wants to mess with the atmosphere. For example, we could try introducing mineral dust that will reflect the sun, to slow down warming. It’s the kind of thing the TED people are getting high on, as if technology is going to somehow repair the damage that technology itself helped cause. I’m always dubious about messing with the environment some more. There’s always that nasty law of unintended consequences.
Renewable energy is the only real solution, and great advances are happening worldwide. America was poised to be the world leader in this area, until Trump and his band of ecological pirates arrived on the scene. China will now lead the world in the 21st century. Their problems of pollution have forced their hand. They are about to begin a multi-trillion investment to phase out coal-fired plants for wind and solar energy.
Even in the U.S. this technology is growing despite efforts by the fossil fools to stop it. The oil, gas, and coal industries get $20 billion in annual government subsidies, and that’s just for direct production. Without these subsidies, half of the production would be too expensive to compete with renewables. Coal is already unable to compete, and is about dead. The fastest sector of job growth in the U.S. is in renewable energy. That’s right — it’s a job creator! The fossil fools will continue to fight the future, but they’re no dummies. They know the score. When it becomes evident to everyone that by following conservatives’ free market economics, nothing can compete with renewables, the profit motive will take over and fossil fuels will belong to the (recycled) dust bin of history.
The question remains, will it be too late by then? And if it is, we’re going to have to answer to our grandchildren when they ask us: “You knew this was going on, and you did nothing about it for decades. What in the hell were you thinking?” And we’ll have to say, “Uh, well, it was complicated.”
If you think mitigated climate change is expensive, try unmitigated climate change.
— Dr. Richard Gammon