Climate Change Is Draining Protein Out Of Staple Crops


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

More than 50 million people in India alone are at risk of protein deficiency by 2050. Zvonimir Atletic/Shutterstock

No matter how hard we work at stopping it, some human-driven climate change is inevitable. It’s already happening, and it will continue to happen even if we drawdown carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

This means that there are certain adaptations we need to make in order to make it through the extreme heatwaves, droughts, floods, storms, famines, conflicts, and refugee crises. One of these involves crops: In plenty of nations, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, temperatures are rising too sharply and agriculture is failing.


This means we need to change the way we grow food in order to survive in certain places around the world. However, plenty of studies confirm that we simply cannot grow new varieties of crops faster than the mercury rises. Sadly, a new study led by Harvard University reveals that the damage to crops will be worse than anyone previously expected.

Based on data gathered from experiments conducted on crops that were exposed to projected atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the team found that protein, something vital for human existence, is set to disappear from staple crops.

In fact, if their calculations are correct, 150 million people spread across 47 different countries – most notably India – will be at risk of protein deficiency by 2050. Higher carbon dioxide concentrations will drain the protein contents of barley (14.6 percent), rice (7.6 percent), wheat (7.8 percent), and potatoes (6.4 percent.)

Around three-quarters of the planet rely on crops to get the majority – or the entirety – of their protein. This news, then, is dreadful, and there’s almost nothing anyone can do about it. The strictest adherence to the Paris agreement won’t be enough by this point.

GM crops may be the best hope we have at adapting to the rising temperatures. AS Food Studio/Shutterstock

Writing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the researchers are careful to note that they aren’t sure why plants synthesize less protein, but all other variables were accounted for – it’s definitely linked to rising carbon dioxide concentrations.

Other studies have noted that other key nutritional components, like zinc, are also under threat for the very same reason. A companion paper focusing on iron, published in GeoHealth, notes that concentrations dropped by as much as 10 percent in crops like maize, putting around 1.4 billion children at risk of major iron deficiencies by 2050.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed we said that almost nothing can be done about this problem at present. There is, in fact, a potential solution to this, aside from aggressively pushing back against anthropogenic climate change: genetically modified crops.

Although much more research needs to be done, GM crops show enormous potential for being more nutritious than conventional crops, and – among other things – climate change resistant. Perhaps this is where the future lies in our inevitably warmer world.


  • tag
  • climate change,

  • diet,

  • agriculture,

  • protein,

  • iron,

  • risk,

  • zinc,

  • gm,

  • paris agreement,

  • adaption,

  • 150 million,

  • deficiency,

  • carbon dioxide concentrations