Rising carbon dioxide levels poses added risk to the Middle East

An additional 2.7% of the MENA population is projected to suffer from zinc deficiency by 2050.
Wednesday 05/09/2018
A view of Shuaiba oil refinery is seen in Basra, southeast of Baghdad September 21, 2015. (Reuters)
A view of Shuaiba oil refinery is seen in Basra, southeast of Baghdad September 21, 2015. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Fresh scientific research suggests carbon dioxide emissions from human behaviour are at their highest recorded levels, carrying severe implications for human health, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

With the rise in the use of fossil fuels and other contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, the levels of protein, zinc and iron in food crops have reduced significantly. In some MENA countries, such as Algeria and Iraq, where meat products are more scarcely consumed, these crops make up about 75% of the iron and zinc elements in the average human diet.

Matthew Smith, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who co-wrote a recent report on the "impact of anthropogenic CO2 emissions on global human nutrition," said deficiencies in the nutrients the human body needs can lead to severe health issues. Samuel Meyers worked with Smith on the report, which was published online August 27, 2018 in Nature Climate Change.

A deficiency in iron, which can come from organ meats, red meat and legumes, can result in lowered IQ and reduced cognitive ability. A lack of iron can also lead to anaemia, reduced work capacity and increased mortality for mothers during birth and their children.

Deficiencies in zinc, which can come from shellfish, nuts and whole grains, "affect the immune system, causing children to become more likely to contract a range of diseases (respiratory infections, malaria and diarrheal disease), as well as increasing their severity and likelihood of mortality," Smith said via e-mail.

Likewise, deficiencies in protein from eggs, lentils, oats, edible seeds and beans are often coupled with a diet severely low in calories and can result in children being at an unhealthy low weight or having stunted growth as well as low birth weight for children born to mothers with deficient diets, Smith said.

The projected increase in zinc deficiency within the broader region of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia "is the second-highest globally, below only India," Smith added. Should carbon dioxide continue to rise at the current rate, in 2050 more than 22.5 million people across MENA would be zinc deficient. Protein deficiencies are also on the rise, with a projected 10.3 million affected.

Smith said: "Many countries in the Middle East could be among the worst affected globally, such as Iraq (additional 2.3% of population newly protein deficient and 2.9% newly zinc deficient), Iran (2.3% newly protein deficient, 1.2% newly zinc deficient), Yemen (1.6% newly protein deficient, 2.7% newly zinc deficient), Lebanon (2.0 newly protein deficient, 1.3% newly zinc deficient)."

Placing the region at particular risk is its traditionally high consumption of grains, such as wheat, which are especially vulnerable to increases in carbon dioxide. The resulting nutrient deficiency could affect potentially millions of people, as well as increasing the effects for the millions who do not yet suffer through a lack of nutrition.

Smith gave examples of how the Middle East could combat this issue, including supporting global commitments to lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

Another option might be to cross-breed crops higher in micronutrients and more resistant to change in carbon dioxide levels. Programmes could be developed to counter the effects of a persistent shortfall in nutrients.

Smith also suggested dietary diversity, including higher contribution from foods more resistant to the carbon dioxide-nutrition effect, as well as nutrient-rich foods, to improve the dietary quality and resilience for vulnerable populations.