The great nutrient collapse
September 13, 2017 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, recently argued that people shouldn’t be so worried about rising CO2 levels because it’s good for plants, and what’s good for plants is good for us.
My God, he literally said "it's what plants crave". God save us.
posted by bleep at 10:30 AM on September 13 [27 favorites]

He literally didn't.
posted by dilaudid at 10:43 AM on September 13 [17 favorites]

To go further than that quote from Rep. Smith:

“A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth,” the Texas Republican wrote. “This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food.”

If you were to head to an elementary school science fair somewhere in Eastern Canada in 1993, a 10-year-old me had the same logic explained on a piece of bristol board. I did a project on photosynthesis that got honorable mention!

It does not bode well for the House Committee on Science, nor the world really, that the Chair's knowledge base on the subject matter isn't even 1st prize at a regional science fair for 10 year olds level.
posted by notorious medium at 10:43 AM on September 13 [13 favorites]

Metafilter is figuratively home to the biggest bunch of pedants in eternity.
posted by Behemoth at 10:52 AM on September 13 [65 favorites]

Biology grant makers said his proposals were too math-heavy; math grant makers said his proposals contained too much biology.

Science by grant committee.
posted by sammyo at 11:08 AM on September 13 [6 favorites]

I hope there's some way to package up the math (does anyone know what kind of math was used?) into easily-applied tools.
posted by Jpfed at 11:42 AM on September 13

I don't work in plant biology, but in another computational biology field (neuroscience). Yeah, pure theoreticians/computationalists are going to face more of an uphill battle in getting their work taken seriously, but there are good reasons for that - it's easy to build crap models/do crap data analysis, unless you have a solid grasp on the domain science. When I was an undergrad I was told that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a theoretician, I should spend a few years of my training doing purely experimental work, which I did - sounds like Loladze either didn't get or didn't take that advice. But having seen a lot of poor or useless theoretical work in my field coming from physics/math/CS types who have clearly never take a basic cell biology class or handled an electrode, I wouldn't be so quick to condemn the grant committees who rejected this guys work just on his say-so. Don't even get me started on the gender politics involved in predominantly male hard science types coming in to the far the more gender-mixed/female-heavy biology disciplines and presuming they can tell us what we're doing wrong based off of reading a couple of papers. This article is raising an interesting topic, but focusing on this guy and his grievances makes it unnecessarily sensationalist to me.
When his paper was finally published in 2014, Loladze listed his grant rejections in the acknowledgements.
Yeah, guy kind of sounds like he has several axes to grind.
posted by aiglet at 11:46 AM on September 13 [18 favorites]

I'm reminded of Pratchett & Gaiman's book Good Omens. Wasn't it Famine, of the Four Horsemen, who created food that made people put on weight but had no nutritional value so people were starving themselves to death at the same time as becoming obese? And paying huge money for it as well.
posted by Fence at 11:54 AM on September 13 [12 favorites]

I continually hear this argument and when I try to raise it in council and government people and when doing submissions on legal changes, I get ignored at best.

I've done much reading on this and it would appear optimal levels of nutrients in plants occur at about 280ppm CO2 and fall off from that point on. I've collected a whole slew of non-warming oriented studies affecting plant and insect growth and even human cognition. Many of these are being observed now, in the field. I'm on the road so just putting paper titles in - anyone's interested I'll put links up.

Falling lignin rates in grasses leading to increased flammability (Combustion properties of Bromus tectorum L.: influence of ecotype and growth under four CO 2 concentrations - Robert R. Blank, Robert H. White and Lewis H. Ziska. 2006.)

Some non-warming eCO2 effects
11% reduction of nitrogen [essentially protein] in C3 plants (but increased N in some legumes e.g. clovers (but clovers can't be grazed on extensively as it causes bloat in stock).

Changes to mycorhizal network health and soil strength - this is my own but in the last few years in NZ there appears to be an increase in shallow slope failure and it is known that mycorrhiza hold soil together, and that eCO2 harms and reduces the complexity of many mycorhizal species.

Increase in soil nematodes (bad news).

Evidence of lower phosphate uptake - bad news - more algal blooms.

Soils tended to be wetter - this appears to be from reduced transpiration, which at 475ppm is about 13% reduced.

More root development / less canopy (edible parts).
posted by unearthed at 12:02 PM on September 13 [20 favorites]

More root development

So this is great for carrot and potato crops, right?
posted by wildblueyonder at 12:11 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

soooooo can we (humanity) do anything to sway the tide of climate change at this point?

Or is this it. Game Over?
posted by Faintdreams at 12:37 PM on September 13

Words cannot express how angry I am that out of all the possible futures there were when I was young, this is the one I'm going to have to grow old and die in.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:43 PM on September 13 [37 favorites]

soooooo can we (humanity) do anything to sway the tide of climate change at this point?

Yes, but it's going to take society-level adjustments to nearly every sector. The energy sector is undergoing massive change towards renewables, including in places like China, but we're going to need to move faster. I think we're going to require carbon capture technologies to really avoid the worst of the impacts, but those are far less attractive than clean energy because they are far less likely to generate financial returns for investors. We're making progress on the capitalism-friendly fronts, but completely failing on those that don't expressly benefit capital. This is a decades- to centuries-long project, which capitalism is extremely ill-suited to address.
posted by Existential Dread at 1:13 PM on September 13 [6 favorites]

The article also doesn't mention what role genetic modification could play in increasing nutrient content in crops. It seems like a notable omission, given they do note that there is a consensus that nutrient content has been falling in food crops, attributable to selective breeding for yield. One of the researchers mentions that it could take decades to breed crops that have higher nutrient content, but could that not be sped up significantly using GMOs? Seeing as we already have Golden rice as a model for how this can be achieved (with the caveat of all the attendant political issues GMOs bring up).
posted by aiglet at 1:42 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

Large sections of the world will be able to take steps, but the US will not (and, culturally, cannot) so the steps taken by others won't really matter much. The average US conservative would probably try to up their carbon output just to spite those irritating do-gooder foreigners. "Rolling coal" and all that -- not coincidental it's a US phenomenon.

Brace yourselves, it's not going to be fun.

(OK, I suppose if a plague wipes out 30% of the developed world then maybe things can be salvaged, but in that sort of situation "salvaged" is kind of a relative term).
posted by aramaic at 1:44 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

Good for this scientist crunching the latest numbers on how climate change makes it worse, but nutrient dilution is hardly an unstudied topic that nobody cares about.
posted by zennie at 2:07 PM on September 13

The great (hypothetical) nutrient collapse.
posted by runcibleshaw at 2:47 PM on September 13

math grant makers said his proposals contained too much biology

I don't know why math exists if we aren't using it to solve problems.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:59 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

Wow! This is REALLY interesting, but I've never heard of it before now. Thanks for the link, MrVisible!

The implications seem both huge and difficult to understand. When it comes to people I'm not sure that 8% decreases in nutrient content translate to dietary deficiencies, because you're talking about two complex systems - the plant's reaction to increased CO2 and the human digestive system's reaction to fluctuating nutrient levels. But in places where people are already on or over the edge of starvation it's got to have an impact, because they can't just eat (or retain) 8% more. And in the animal kingdom this must be important. That scientist Lewis Ziska's work with Goldenrod is extremely suggestive. 33% less protein content in Goldenrod pollen since the beginning of the industrial revolution! Is it possible that bees can compensate for something like that by finding more protein rich pollen in places they wouldn't ordinarily go, or by storing more honey earlier in the year, or does that translate directly into starving bees? Seems like the sort of thing that could be found with more research.

Come to think of it, this seems like an important factor to consider in the new hydroponic farming movement, too. Maybe there are things to optimize for that are more important than just yield.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:50 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

This is terrifying.

They found that the protein content of goldenrod pollen has declined by a third since the industrial revolution—and the change closely tracks with the rise in CO2. Scientists have been trying to figure out why bee populations around the world have been in decline, which threatens many crops that rely on bees for pollination. Ziska’s paper suggested that a decline in protein prior to winter could be an additional factor making it hard for bees to survive other stressors.

It seems that people who have plenty of food are unlikely to suffer immediate consequences from lower levels of nutrients and proteins (though it does seem likely that it would contribute to poorer long term health, and certainly some people are already close to malnutrition and would be more directly affected). But if bees and other vulnerable wild animals can't survive, ecosystems will collapse and the results could be catastrophic.

Thanks for posting the article.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:02 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]

There was an an article in an FPP here a while back talking about how there may (or may not, no one was sure) be fewer insects in certain places than there used to be. The author started by musing that cars on long trips just don't get splattered with bugs like they used to. Anyway, this may be one reason (along with herbicides and insecticides and agricultural runoff) for a decline in bugs and the creatures that eat bugs, like birds.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:24 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

The unintended ecosystem wide consequences of declining nutritional density of plants and pollen are scary and hard to anticipate.

To aigletWill GMOs compensate? No. when you think GMO think: plants that can be sprayed with more poison and not die, or plants that can make their own poisons. by seed count and by weight that is over billions to 1 of GMO production, GMO research figures i am not privy to, but nutritional improvement has been small $ PR. a higher fraction of dogs have been to space in the 20th century then GMO seeds for nutritional enhancement compare to GMO seeds for herbicide pesticide expression or resistance.

also Climate change will drop grain yeilds, we are already paving and turning to desert more and more farm land and population growth continues. less land lower yields, less nutrition per yield, more people. well, more people up until way way less people and lots of bones.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 5:36 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I dunno. What aiglet said upthread about domain knowledge? I have a PhD in biochemistry and I fear I don't find this narrative particularly compelling.
posted by Sublimity at 5:59 PM on September 13

It's hard to say without more study. But in the current political climate, will there be more study?
posted by acrasis at 6:27 PM on September 13

Horrible horrible, what a terrible situation, what dilution really means is .... Eat MORE kale

(I hate kale)
posted by sammyo at 6:50 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

This is really interesting science wise and does make sense. But IMHO seems likely to be an exceptionally manageable part of global warming. My reason for thinking this is:

1) Nutritional impact in the richer parts of the world.
2) Nutritional impact in the poorer parts of the world.
3) Ecological impact.

I just don't think (1) is an issue--people in the developed world generally do not have nutritional deficiencies because they are relying on too much unprocessed plant matter and can't adapt to nutrient shifts. The second one could have an impact but the cost to fix seems way lower than the cost tackle the myriad other disruptions we are dealing with. And pretty much the same with (3): insects suffering off the junkfood is probably the most worrisome impact of this but just strikes me as way less worrisome than the whole sales re-engineering of ecosystems rising temperatures and changing winds, currents and climate is going to bring.

I could certainly be proven wrong by more research. But the chorus of scientists in the piece is "more study needed" (and in a non-FUD way, they actually mean more study is needed.) Given that there are many problems where we *don't* need new studies to know there's a massive impact it's not going to get a spot on my panic radar. Maybe on my science trivia stuff.
posted by mark k at 8:20 PM on September 13

I don't know why math exists if we aren't using it to solve problems.

Pretty sure mathematicians think math exists mostly for the sake of new math, for suitable definitions of {math, exist, sake, new}. And if math happens to have any non-math applications, then that is a perverse but not entirely unwanted result.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:41 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

I agree with all the points that aiglet has made in this thread. Very eloquently done, too.

re: too much math/too much biology, it could simply mean that the proposal wasn't good enough for either and was overall just a not-great proposal.

As for "optimal" CO2 for plants - plants evolve; is there a copse of a certain strain of tree that you can see? Where I am, it's entering autumn and there is a lot of heterogeneity in their response to this year's far-out-of-normal summer despite them likely to have been propagated pretty limited genetic stock. "Optimal" is a moving and artificial target akin to talking about perfectly spherical cows. Optimal for what criteria?
posted by porpoise at 8:46 PM on September 14

Words cannot express how angry I am that out of all the possible futures there were when I was young, this is the one I'm going to have to grow old and die in.

I have good news and bad news, and both of them are "you only have to do one of those things!"
posted by duffell at 10:22 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]

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