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Dr Andi Horvath

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The levels of Co2 forecast for 2050 has been shown to deplete the nutritional quality of major food crops, an international research team featuring academics from the University of Melbourne has determined.

The study — published today in the journal Nature — found elevated carbon dioxide was associated with lower concentrations of zinc and iron in wheat, rice and legume crops, and lower protein concentrations in wheat and rice crops.

The research was based on data from six crop varieties in 40 growing clusters across three continents, includiong in Horsham, Victoria.

The crops were cultivated in Free Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE) environments, which allow plants to be grown in open fields at the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels expected in 2050.

The results have significant implications for global health, as these food crops are the staple diet of a large proportion of the global population.

With dietary deficiencies of zinc and iron currently affecting about two billion people, reduced dietary access to these nutrients represents a very significant global health threat.

University of Melbourne researcher Professor Michael Tausz, said the Harvard University-led study indicates Australian crop industries must adapt to the future.

“If we are planning on breeding new crop varieties, or adopting new technologies or practices in food production to counter these drawbacks, then 35 years is not a very long time,” he said.

“What it means is that any new strategy in crop production to respond to these challenges, be it in plant breeding or agronomic management, must already be evaluated for its efficiency under the future high carbon dioxide atmosphere, where it actually has to perform.”

The Australian Grains FACE (AGFACE) program is run by the University of Melbourne and the Department of Environment and Primary Industries Victoria, with support from the Department of Agriculture and the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

PICCC Director Associate Professor Richard Eckard says that although modelling has shown the impacts of climate change on agricultural production will be large, there are still a range of adaptation options that the industry can pursue.

“With adaptations we can capture the benefits and minimise the potential negative effects,” he said.

“The net effect of well-directed adaptation would be an increase in agricultural productivity by 2050.”