Climate Change is Bad for Bread

Pain de campagne

Pain de campagne (Photo credit: zigazou76)

The G8 summit may have agreed to try to cut greenhouse gas emissions – but don’t count on that saving your favourite crusty French bread.

German researchers have shown that high CO2 levels in the atmosphere lead to wheat crops throughout Europe with less gluten, the protein in flour that forms the gooey matrix of dough.

By 2050, the researchers say, the expected CO2 levels in the atmosphere may lead to dough that rises nearly 20% less than it does now. The researchers, from the Johann Heinrich von Thunen Institute in Braunschweig , say that CO2 disrupts nitrogen uptake by the plants, and this causes the protein deficiency.

A world with less gluten may appeal to coeliac sufferers and other members of the wheatless protection program. But for fans of ciabatta and pain de campagne, bread with texture like sponge cake is a heart-breaking prospect.

The effect will likely take hold globally – possibly affecting a broad variety of grains and other food staples. The disruption is already well documented, and elevated CO2 levels are thought to be a contributing factor to global rice shortages.

As far as Europe is concerned, the researchers see only two possible solutions – both of which come with significant problems.

The most straightforward solution may be for farmers to double the amount of nitrogen-rich fertilizer they put on their crops.

Needless to say, this would be tremendously damaging to the local environment. Nitrogen runoff is the most destructive aspect to modern farming. For example, it leads to massive algae blooms that can fatally damage the ecosystem of local waterways.

The second – and possibly most realistic – solution would be for farmers to adopt genetically modified wheat varieties capable of producing higher than normal gluten yields. Given their resistance to GM crops, however, one might even be inclined to believe that Europeans would find the prospect of munching on bad bread more palatable.

Stu Hutson, New Scientist contributor


Categories: Miscellany

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