Ever think about zooplankton? Yeah, me neither. Heck, until recently I had only a vague understanding of what these creatures were. I thought they were sea plants of some sort. Perhaps the ‘zoo’ in the name should have clued me in. It didn’t. Go ahead, you can laugh. My knowledge of fifth-grade ocean biology appears to be lacking. For the similarly ignorant among us, zooplankton are the microscopic animals that drift along the ocean and lake currents eating algae. They look a bit like shrimp except minus the shells. Jellyfish are also considered zooplankton, despite not being microscopic. What is so interesting about zooplankton that I should write an entire article about them? It turns out, that despite an ample supply of food, these creatures are struggling to survive. Hmm. Well fed, but struggling to survive, sounds familiar doesn’t it? Could there be similarities between their situation and ours? I think so. In fact, I think what is happening to the zooplankton via their environment is emblematic of what is happening to us and the environment as a whole.
Growing Too Quickly?
Backing up just a bit, a few decades ago, scientists in a lab in Arizona discovered that by shining more light on algae, they could expedite their growth cycles, producing bigger, fatter algae in less time. Similarly, they also noticed that when these bigger, fatter algae were fed to the zooplankton, the animals began to struggle and eventually die off. None of the biologists could figure it out. How was it that by simply adding more light and increasing the yield of algae blooms the health of zooplankton would be affected? There was plenty of food. There were no added chemicals or plastics to the environment (a common cause of toxic algae blooms). The only variable that changed was the additional light. The light made the algae grow, which provided lots of food for the zooplankton. How in the world does increased food availability become deleterious?
It took a few years, but a mathematician named Irakli Loladze figured it out.
“The increased light was making the algae grow faster, but they ended up containing fewer of the nutrients the zooplankton needed to thrive. By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food. The zooplankton had plenty to eat, but their food was less nutritious, and so they were starving.”
See where I am going with this? The quick grow algae had become junk food and the zooplankton were essentially suffering from what we call ‘high-calorie malnutrition’. Sound familiar? It should. High-calorie malnutrition accounts for a staggering number of modern disease processes, wreaking metabolic havoc on human health. In humans, however, the high calories typically come from heavily sweetened, starchy, highly processed junk foods, not plants. Or do they? It seems that we are witnessing a similarly disturbing shift in plant ecology. Current agricultural practices are turning normally nutrient-dense plant crops into junk food. Worse yet, those practices are part of a larger ecological disaster, which some have appropriately termed, the great nutrient collapse.
Junk Food Crops, Junk Food Algae, and the Circle of Life
Among the myriad of problems associated with modern agriculture is the insistence on breeding plants for size and appearance. This, by nature, diminishes crop variability. Accordingly, 95% of the genomic variability, about 200,000 metabolites, have been bred out of modern crops compared to just a few decades ago. Considering that 70% of our foods come from just 15 crops, the implications of even the most benign breeding programs are staggering. The human diet now consists of fewer crops that contain significantly fewer nutrients than those of previous generations.
Our crop breeding programs, however, are anything but benign. Not only have we purposefully winnowed out some 200,000 plant metabolites from our food chain and reduced the overall variety of those already nutrient-poor crops to just a few mono-crops, but to achieve these goals, we add millions of tons of toxic chemicals annually – 12.5 million kgs of glyphosate alone in 2014. Since these chemicals are toxic to native plants (and us), we have to add back a few non-native gene products that allow the plant to withstand the toxic onslaught. While industry supporters contend these chemicals and practices are perfectly innocuous and in no way impact human health or the environment, a slew of independent scientists with a large body of research suggests otherwise. Indeed, the use of these chemicals, along with the tendency to grow just one crop, rather than rotate crops, has depleted the topsoil of minerals critical to plant and human health by some 80% in western countries. That alone should be cause for alarm, but there is more.
Though some contend otherwise, the environmental damage done by agricultural practices adopted over the last several decades contributes to rising atmospheric CO2 levels. By some figures, CO2 levels have increased from 280 ppm in 1958 to over 400 currently. Estimates suggest the manufacture and use of these chemicals along with current monocrop and deforestation practices contribute to approximately 21% of the overall emissions. Of that, livestock farming, particularly methane release certainly plays a large role. Remember, of course, 95% of the soy and crops are grown for use in livestock farming and those products rely heavily on agricultural chemicals. It is a vicious ecology. All of this aside, rising CO2 levels are problematic to crop foods even if we did not also have to contend with the myriad of other problems associated with current growing practices, but we do and this is part of an iterative cycle of damage.
Why is high CO2 detrimental to plant nutrition? Plants rely on light, water, and CO2 to grow, absorb the minerals from the soil, and convert those minerals into the raw nutrients contained within the plant itself – the ones we and other organisms will ultimately ingest and need to survive. Much like adding light to the algae, increased CO2 expedites plant growth, but comes at the cost of diminished nutrients.
“The elemental chemical composition of a plant (that is, ionome) reflects a balance between carbon, obtained through atmospheric [CO2], and the remaining nutrients, obtained through the soil.”
Skew that balance and we have problems.
When all of these variables are combined, that is, when we breed these plants for size and appearance, effectively reducing all manner of likely useful genetic material, deplete the soil of nutrients, force these plants to withstand all sorts of toxins, and then expose them to ever-increasing CO2 levels, we get junk food. We get crops that look good but are little more than sugar bombs.
The Nutrient Collapse Cycle
In much the same manner that ingesting garbage food diminishes mitochondrial capacity, alters human metabolism, and elicits deleterious compensatory reactions (inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and the like), the shortcuts we have employed in agriculture to expedite crop yield have changed the elemental composition of the plants and the atmosphere in which these plants are grown. Although it is somewhat easier to recognize the deleterious effects of the agricultural chemicals on organismal health, there are discrete measurable mechanisms by which these chemicals affect aspects of cellular function, it is significantly more difficult to measure the broader effects, the cumulative changes on atmospheric composition. Here, these chemicals are but one part of a much larger environmental catastrophe. Ultimately, however, the net result is elevated CO2, which then feeds back to alter plant composition even more.
Higher CO2 increases the rate of photosynthesis resulting in larger plants. This, according to opponents of climate change, is a net benefit. Like the algae, however, the nutrient density of the plants shifts rather dramatically. The crops become very efficient sugar factories pulling more and more starch into their tissues. A process much like the metabolic shift of type 2 diabetes that is continuously reinforcing itself. As CO2 levels continue rise:
“…every serving of bread, pasta, fruits, and vegetables delivers more starch and sugar but less calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, protein and other essential nutrients.”
It is a feedforward loop; one that will be difficult to unwind. More sugar equals fewer nutrients, demands and produces more sugar, and so on. From the environmental perspective, the continued use of these chemicals will alter the plants in such a way as to demand the use of more chemicals, all the while fundamentally changing the environment in which these plants grow, which again changes the composition of the plants.
Just how bad is this? A study looking at the impact of rising CO2 on the nutritional decline of 18 varieties of rice, a staple food for much of the population, found significant
“…declines in protein [10%], iron [8%], and zinc [5%] … also find consistent declines in vitamins B1 [17%], B2 [16%], B5 [12%], and B9 [30%] and, conversely, an increase in vitamin E…”
Although this study was limited to evaluating the nutrient content of just one crop, a similar pattern of nutrient decline would be expected across all crops, and indeed, all plants. That means that every organism up and down the food chain would be affected physiologically by the reduction in nutrient availability. If this continues, it is not difficult to imagine that even if food production remains consistent (and there is evidence, that it may not), the quality of the food will continue to decline, and at some point, fail to provide sustenance.
Zooplankton: Aquatic Markers of Our Demise
Like the canary in the coal mine, the zooplankton reminds us of an impending collapse of health. Unlike the canary, however, death is more gradual and complicated. It is brought on, not by one, solitary action or event, but by an entire system of ill-conceived practices that reverberate across ecosystems. The zooplankton, like many humans, suffers from the ill effects of high-calorie malnutrition.
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This article was published originally on August 27, 2018.