While carbon dioxide is what plants crave, it may also affect how nutritious those crops will be for humans. Studies by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have found that crops grown in CO2-enriched environments have less protein and important minerals like iron and zinc.
But while farmers can change crops or livestock, there has to be a market for them. That may require changes in consumer choice that aren’t likely to appear overnight. That’s especially true for livestock, which consume the biggest chunk of the U.S. corn harvest.
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“The amount of water to produce a pound of meat versus a pound of legumes or a pound of eggs or milk is huge,” Prasad noted. “It’s 10, 15, or even sometimes a 50-fold difference in the amount of water that’s utilized.”
“I’m not suggesting we don’t eat meat at all,” he added. But moving away from daily consumption of meat every day can help ease the effects of climate change, he said. “If consumers don’t change in terms of their diet preferences, it will be very tough.”
Lewis pointed out that such shifts have occurred in the past, especially as global trade has created new opportunities for farmers.
“We didn’t have quinoa when I was growing up. I still remember when kiwi started to become a fruit in the grocery store,” she said. But there’s less of a connection between farm and supermarket than you may think. “A relatively small portion of the dollar a food consumer spends goes back to the farmer.”
But Lewis added that when the Environmental Defense Fund worked with the giant pork producer Smithfield Foods to incorporate more wheat into its mix of feed, farmers responded by growing more.
“It took a clear market signal from Smithfield to take some land out of corn production and put in some wheat,” she said. “Those are probably areas where less the consumer and more the food companies will play a role in helping farmers diversify their crop rotations and adapt to climate change.”