Background: Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are anticipated to decrease the zinc and iron concentrations of crops. The associated disease burden and optimal mitigation strategies remain unknown. We sought to understand where and to what extent increasing carbon dioxide concentrations may increase the global burden of nutritional deficiencies through changes in crop nutrient concentrations, and the effects of potential mitigation strategies.
Methods and findings: For each of 137 countries, we incorporated estimates of climate change, crop nutrient concentrations, dietary patterns, and disease risk into a microsimulation model of zinc and iron deficiency. These estimates were obtained from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, US Department of Agriculture, Statistics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and Global Burden of Disease Project, respectively. In the absence of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations, we estimated that zinc and iron deficiencies would induce 1,072.9 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) globally over the period 2015 to 2050 (95% credible interval [CrI]: 971.1-1,167.7). In the presence of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations, we estimated that decreasing zinc and iron concentrations of crops would induce an additional 125.8 million DALYs globally over the same period (95% CrI: 113.6-138.9). This carbon-dioxide-induced disease burden is projected to disproportionately affect nations in the World Health Organization's South-East Asia and African Regions (44.0 and 28.5 million DALYs, respectively), which already have high existing disease burdens from zinc and iron deficiencies (364.3 and 299.5 million DALYs, respectively), increasing global nutritional inequalities. A climate mitigation strategy such as the Paris Agreement (an international agreement to keep global temperatures within 2°C of pre-industrial levels) would be expected to avert 48.2% of this burden (95% CrI: 47.8%-48.5%), while traditional public health interventions including nutrient supplementation and disease control programs would be expected to avert 26.6% of the burden (95% CrI: 23.8%-29.6%). Of the traditional public health interventions, zinc supplementation would be expected to avert 5.5%, iron supplementation 15.7%, malaria mitigation 3.2%, pneumonia mitigation 1.6%, and diarrhea mitigation 0.5%. The primary limitations of the analysis include uncertainty regarding how food consumption patterns may change with climate, how disease mortality rates will change over time, and how crop zinc and iron concentrations will decline from those at present to those in 2050.
Conclusions: Effects of increased carbon dioxide on crop nutrient concentrations are anticipated to exacerbate inequalities in zinc and iron deficiencies by 2050. Proposed Paris Agreement strategies are expected to be more effective than traditional public health measures to avert the increased inequality.