Sustainability

CARBON DIOXIDE (CO2) IN THE ATMOSPHERE: DOES IT AFFECT THE QUALITY OF OUR FOOD, INCLUDING GRAPES AND WINE?

17 January 2018

On the first of November, I drove home from the Maremma, and Antonella and I discussed, among other things, the omnipresent topic of “climate change”.
This subject is discussed almost everywhere, and everyone seems compelled to share their own opinion. It’s become an almost comical topic used and consumed to ‘distract’ us from much more tangible problems. Nowadays, you can’t escape the photos of melting glaciers crashing into the ocean or bears in search of land or food. In short, the Truth, with a capital T, is the domain of the few, but the show must go on.
I was most taken by Irakli Loladze’s (@loladze) prestigious biomathematics research on the loss of the nutritional value of food.Like many sensational discoveries, it all started with simple materials and Cartesian methods to answer the question: Is it true that the atmosphere is changing the food we eat for the worse? Irakli Loladze, with other researchers, made an extraordinary discovery in zooplankton (microscopic organisms present throughout the aquatic world that primarily feed on algae).
His research showed that it was possible to grow algae faster with increased illumination. When the algae received more light, it grew faster and the zooplankton had much more food, but then, at a certain point, the latter struggled to survive: there was a paradox! The increased light was certainly responsible for the algae’s faster growth, but, on the other hand, the same contained less of the nutrients necessary for the regular growth of the zooplankton. That is, with its ‘speedy’ growth, the algae was transforming into ‘junk food’, which, in turn, was responsible for starving the zooplankton. The algae-zooplankton dynamics was described with an algorithm, which explained the relationship between a food source and a pasture that depends on that food.
The author and collaborators soon tried to extrapolate this relationship and extend it to other sectors. For example how could it work in the grass-cow relationship? Or in the case of cereals and human nutrition?

For plants that live in the soil, the problem is not receiving more light but the fact that, for several years, they have absorbed significantly more CO2 in the atmosphere and, as the latter rises, they produce a less nutritious food for the man who feeds on them.
The carbon cycle between soil and atmosphere is well documented. The increase of fossil consumption for industrial and other purposes, strongly contributed to the increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
It follows that every leaf on the earth gradually produces more sugar as the CO2 values rise. And we are witnessing the greatest intake of CO2 in the biosphere in human history, an injection that is diluting the other nutrients we need for a healthy diet.
But there’s more, studies on fruits and vegetables demonstrate that their minerals, vitamins and proteins have drastically decreased over the last 50/70 years. The reason? The genetic ‘improvements’ we have made mainly to increase production levels in broccoli rather than in tomatoes, wheat, corn, barley… etc have had the unexpected result of producing a ‘package’ of less nutritious food. In fact, a 2004 study by the same researchers on fruits and vegetables demonstrated a significant decrease in proteins, calcium, iron and vitamin C in domestic gardens since 1950, mainly due to a change in varieties used.
There is another important aspect to consider: plants need CO2 to live like we need oxygen. In the endless debate on climate change, a phenomenon that is rarely considered is how the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is continually growing. Before the Industrial Revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of CO2. In 2016, our planet has reached 400 ppm and could reach 550 ppm in 50 years if emissions are not drastically and immediately reduced. Additionally, CO2 remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years, even longer in oceans. On two issues, scientists agree:

  1. If we do not reduce CO2 emissions, we will not be able to mitigate climate change

Pollution from the Po Valley entering the Belbo Valley (Cn)

  1. CO2 levels will not fall below current levels for many generations to come

But to return to agriculture, we might think that a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere improves photosynthesis resulting in higher quantities of production, which should be a welcome thing! But instead, as demonstrated by Loladze’s studies of zooplankton, large production and food quality are inversely related. With the increased availability of CO2, plants grow more and produce many more carbohydrates at the expense of the other nutrients on which we depend.

Hence several studies have demonstrated the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere and the quality of human nutrition are inversely correlated through a drop in the quality of production.

But these arguments are neither discussed nor studied in the agronomic sciences nor in the field of public health. Often we simply prefer to ‘sell’ other goods such as the vitamin and supplements that have now invaded all our pharmacies.

It is difficult, but not impossible to conduct an experiment that verifies how CO2 affects plants. This research (FACE = free-air carbon dioxide enrichment) involves creating a structure capable of supplying the plants with CO2 while a proximal witness is monitored under normal environmental conditions. For plants in the “C3” category, i.e. about 95% of known plants including wheat, rice, barley, potatoes, etc., high amounts of CO2 cause significant non-synthesis of minerals (on average -8%), in particular calcium, potassium, zinc and iron. The same conditions also show a significant reduction in protein (-6% in wheat and -8% in rice). In the United States, the increased presence of synthesized sugars has further exacerbated their already serious public health problems including obesity and vascular disease.

A subsequent study, carried out by the Department of Agriculture Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, looks at pollen and bees by examining the changes that have occurred in ‘goldenrod‘ (fam Asteracee, gen Solidago), which is extremely important for bees. In fact, the plant’s late flowering and pollen provide the bees with an important source of protein before winter. Since Solidago is wild and thus has not been subjected to genetic improvements to produce new types, it has not changed over time, as is the case for most cultivated species. In the Smithsonian, one of the world’s top museums, hundreds of goldenrod samples are preserved, dating back to 1842, thus providing researchers with an opportunity to verify how these plants have changed over time. They verified that the protein content of goldenrod pollen has reduced by a third since the Industrial Revolution. This could also explain why bees are in decline worldwide: a lower availability of protein before winter may represent an additional factor that puts their survival at risk.

In light of these facts, I believe it is important to stimulate knowledge, so as to better understand the connection between climatological science and human health. Food quality research is attracting more attention in China, Japan and Australia, as well as in the USA (USDA).

In 2014, a study was published in Nature demonstrated how the increased values of CO2 in the atmosphere lowered the nutritional values of C3 crops. This impressive study used 130 varieties of plants with more than 15,000 samples to verify the consequences of increased CO2 and its effect on plant nutrients.

The concentration of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron decreased by 8% while the carbohydrate/mineral ratio increased. That is, plants like algae transformed into less ‘healthy’ food (junk food). A fundamental line of research was finally opened, but unfortunately, the scholars working in this sector have come across many obstacles, as the word “climate” is enough to derail a robust and profound conversation.

“The real elephant in the room is carbon dioxide… which remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years” with the value of 400ppm of CO2, we have entered a new climatic era (Taalas).

And how do viticulture and wine contribute to the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere?

I would like to remind you that in hilly areas with a high concentration of vineyards, 240/260 liters of diesel are used on average to cultivate one hectare of vineyard.

This value can be double in fertile areas with high vegetative vigor and strong pathogen presence. If 1 liter of diesel produces 2650g of CO2, these vineyards are releasing between 700kg to 1300kg of CO2/ hectare of vineyard/ year into the atmosphere. In Italy, there are about 642 thousand hectares of vineyards, but I won’t do the math, as it’s too hypothetical.

Thus there is clear evidence of how viticulture, in order to capture at least part of the CO2 emitted, must “return” to a well-studied company polycultural condition, in which a part of the terrain is forested, grassy, etc. Examples of elevated cultivation intensity or the quasi-monoculture-vineyard have been variously seen in different eras (e.g. Asti-Moscato, Barbaresco, Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Montalcino, Prosecco…), yet all derive, originally, from a polycultural agricultural economy (vineyards, pastures, arable land, wooded areas and important trees).

Extensive viticulture in Veneto

It is enough to look at historical photographic documentation to see the dynamics of the agricultural landscape. Often there are sudden local economies (thirty to forty years old) that have become ‘victims’ of exaggerated success and which now show significant limits that are difficult to remedy except through collective solutions.

It is certainly not a step backwards to reconsider choices that are not rational but two steps forward to better enhance the landscape, reduce pollution, restore productive longevity to territories, also in terms of the growth of necessary biodiversity, and this above all means thinking more about the future.

The vineyard and the cellar can be managed with a lower CO2 impact, in order to achieve a better Carbon Footprint eventually even a Carbon Offset. Perhaps many wine entrepreneurs are so engulfed in their many tasks, duties, etc. … or perhaps they are still unaware, but it is necessary to share this knowledge, which can no longer be deferred.

The most important question a consumer visiting a winery should ask is no longer the usual “fermentation period or what type of yeasts or container are used” but rather “can you please tell me about the company’s Carbon Footprint” and then go from there.

In short, companies in every sector of industry these days, are fully geared towards improving their emission’s budget, so how is it possible that the wine sector is still dragging its feet?

Lighter, electricity-powered machines, hydrogen engines, drones, robots and artificial intelligence are coming… and yet in grape cultivation and winemaking, we keep using the heavy tractors that are so destructive to the soil and… to the drivers.

I firmly believe research that examines the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and its effects on the nutritional characteristics of table and wine grapes is a must. This research is now a priority and cannot be postponed. Given that in the ’50s and ’60s, the atmospheric CO2 values were much lower than current ones and the climatic trend more temperate, the percentage of sugars contained in the grapes was significantly lower than current values. Today? In certain areas, it is now customary to have too much sugar accumulation in the grapes at the expense of other parameters with frequent unbalances which demand for corrective actions. Hence a fundamental question is awaiting an answer: what are the consequences of the growth of atmospheric CO2 on the nutritional value of table or wine grapes and in the numerous and dynamic compounds that determine their value?

I find it surprising that the research world is still caught up on checking the vegetal physiology of the vine as if it were all a matter of photosynthetic efficiency! It seems to me that we are in a paradox: we must instead try to ‘make the leaf work less!’

Often the research shifts its attention… elsewhere, thinking instead of producing plants without disease, transferring large sums of public funds towards objectives that in the very least are reckless also because they’re not brought to the attention of all the producers. The wine sector is very articulated and made of very different realities, values and needs.

I conclude by stressing the need to direct research towards the effects of CO2 on the grape-wine industry: a potentially huge line of scientific development that doesn’t yet exist, not even in someone’s desk drawer… despite its potential to offer an innovative and fundamental contribution.

We absolutely need more appropriate information and at the ‘right’ moment, more education (= knowledge), more culture, more respect… of the ancestral heritage of our food producers, of splendid wines, of harmonious agricultural landscapes. More preparation is needed to face the future of grape and wine production in every historical period. He who is a serious wine producer, cannot avoid from engaging personally, deeply and discreetly. I’m simply bewildered in observing still so much indifference towards these values. But I’m also confident because something important is already on the move and the pioneers are already bravely on the battlefield: we must work, now!

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