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This technique was especially employed to test the effects of higher carbon dioxide concentrations on plants growing in the same conditions that farmers are expected grow some decades later in this century. "But how plants respond to that sudden increase in food will impact human health as well, from nutritional deficits, to ethnopharmacology, to seasonal pollen allergies - in ways we don't yet understand", said Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the US Department of Agriculture research service, one of the authors.

"Rice is not just a major source of calories, but also proteins and vitamins for many people in developing countries and for poorer communities within developed countries", Kazuhiko Kobayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo, said in a news release. This was also true in Japan during the 1960s, but current Japanese receive only about 20 percent of their daily food energy from rice.

As carbon dioxide levels rise worldwide due to industrialization and other factors, scientists are concerned that a decrease in rice's nutritional value could lead to more malnutrition. "Using a weighting scheme focusing on those with the fewest resources, we estimate this decline in nutrient quality will affect about 600 million people". Plants that share the same photosynthesis pathway as rice and wheat do indeed grow larger and produce greater yields in higher carbon dioxide concentrations by creating more carbohydrates, says Lisa Ainsworth, a biologist at the University of IL at Urbana-Champaign and the U.S. Department of.

Professor Furbank - based at the Australian National University - said researchers should now study and breed varieties that will yield quality - not just quantity in high Carbon dioxide environments. Vitamins B1 and B5 dropped up to 30 percent, depending on the variety.

"Overall, these results indicate that the role of rising Carbon dioxide on reducing rice quality may represent a fundamental, but under-appreciated, human health effect associated with anthropogenic climate change". Agriculture who did not work on the study. "They're basically getting a dilution effect of the nutrients in the grains", she says.

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As part of the experiments, 18 different strains of rice were planted in open fields, surrounded in certain areas by 56-foot wide (17-meter) octagons of plastic piping that released extra CO2. There has already been concern about the impact of higher levels of carbon dioxide on protein in potatoes, maize and other cereals.

The scientists suggest that either breeding or genetically engineering new strains could be a way to lessen the nutritional impact of climate change.

But getting people to switch to new grains is not always easy, Ainsworth says. "People eat different rice for different meals and events".

Angus Chen is a journalist in NY.