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"Grain Strain" -- The Discovery Files

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A field test conducted by scientists at UC Davis has demonstrated that elevated levels of carbon dioxide inhibit plants' assimilation of nitrate into proteins, indicating that the nutritional quality of food crops is at risk as climate change intensifies.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Wheat future.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Laboratory studies have demonstrated that as CO2 levels increase, plants have a harder time of processing nitrate into proteins. And the nutritional quality of the food crops drops. Now, scientists at UC Davis have verified this relationship in field-grown wheat. One fourth of the protein in the human diet is provided by wheat.

The researchers used new technologies to analyze carefully preserved samples of wheat grown in an agricultural center in the 1990's. Back then, some plots of wheat were grown exposed to carbon dioxide-enriched air at about the same level we can expect in the next few decades due to climate change.

The new UC Davis findings affirm that increased CO2 levels inhibited the wheat's ability to process nitrogen into protein. Heavy use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers could be used to help counter the effects, but that comes with its own set of problems--including, ironically, the release of more nitrous oxide--a greenhouse gas.

The team believes that with climate change, food quality is at risk, and that we could see a 3% drop in the amount of protein available for human consumption in the next few decades.

It's tough to imagine this toaster pastry could become any less nutritious.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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