The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is increasing. Everything else being equal, higher CO₂ levels will increase the yields of major crops such as wheat, barley and pulses. But the trade-off is a hit to the quality and nutritional content of some of our favourite foods.
In our research at the Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (AGFACE) facility, we at Agriculture Victoria and The University of Melbourne are mimicking the CO₂ levels likely to be found in the year 2050. CO₂ levels currently stand at 406 parts per million (PPM) and are expected to rise to 550PPM by 2050. We have found that elevated levels of CO₂ will reduce the concentration of grain protein and micronutrients like zinc and iron, in cereals (pulses are less affected).
The degree to which protein is affected by CO₂ depends on the temperature and available water. In wet years there will be a smaller impact than in drier years. But over nine years of research we have shown that the average decrease in grain protein content is 6% when there is elevated CO₂.
Because a decrease in protein content under elevated CO2 can be more severe in dry conditions, Australia could be particularly affected. Unless ways are found to ameliorate the decrease in protein through plant breeding and agronomy, Australia’s dry conditions may put it at a competitive disadvantage, since grain quality is likely to decrease more than in other parts of the world with more favourable growing conditions.
There are several different classes of wheat – some are good for making bread, others for noodles etc. The amount of protein is one of the factors that sets some wheat apart from others.
Although a 6% average decrease in grain protein content may not seem large, it could result in a lot of Australian wheat being downgraded. Some regions may be completely unable to grow wheat of high enough quality to make bread.
But the protein reduction in our wheat will become manifest in a number of ways. As many farmers are paid premiums for high protein concentrations, their incomes could suffer. Our exports will also take a hit, as markets prefer high-protein wheat. For consumers, we could see the reduction in bread quality (the best bread flours are high-protein) and nutrition. Loaf volume and texture may be different but it is unclear whether taste will be affected.
The main measure of this is loaf volume and texture, but the degree of decrease is affected by crop variety. A decrease in grain protein concentration is one factor affecting loaf volume, but dough characteristics (such as elasticity) are also degraded by changes in the protein make-up of grain. This alters the composition of glutenin and gliadin proteins which are the predominant proteins in gluten. To maintain bread quality when lower quality flour is used, bakers can add gluten, but if gluten characteristics are changed, this may not achieve the desired dough characteristics for high quality bread. Even if adding extra gluten remedies poor loaf quality, it adds extra expense to the baking process.
Nutrition will also be affected by reduced grain protein, particularly in developing areas with more limited access to food. This is a major food security concern. If grain protein concentration decreases, people with less access to food may need to consume more (at more cost) in order to meet their basic nutritional needs. Reduced micronutrients, notably zinc and iron, could affect health, particularly in Africa. This is being addressed by international efforts biofortification and selection of iron and zinc rich varieties, but it is unknown whether such efforts will be successful as CO₂ levels increase.
What can we do about it?
Farmers have always been adaptive and responsive to changes and it is possible management of nitrogen fertilisers could minimise the reduction in grain protein. Research we are conducting shows, however, that adding additional fertiliser has less effect under elevated CO₂ conditions than under current CO₂ levels. There may be fundamental physiological changes and bottlenecks under elevated CO₂ that are not yet well understood.
If management through nitrogen-based fertilisation either cannot, or can only partly, increases grain protein, then we must question whether plant breeding can keep up with the rapid increase in CO₂. Are there traits that are not being considered but that could optimise the positives and reduce the negative impacts?
Selection for high protein wheat varieties often results in a decrease in yield. This relationship is referred to as the yield-protein conundrum. A lot of effort has gone into finding varieties that increase protein while maintaining yields. We have yet to find real success down this path.
A combination of management adaptation and breeding may be able to maintain grain protein while still increasing yields. But, there are unknowns under elevated CO₂such as whether protein make-up is altered, and whether there are limitations in the plant to how protein is manufactured under elevated CO2. We may require active selection and more extensive testing of traits and management practices to understand whether varieties selected now will still respond as expected under future CO₂ conditions.
Finally, to maintain bread quality we should rethink our intentions. Not all wheat needs to be destined for bread. But, for Australia to remain competitive in international markets, plant breeders may need to select varieties with higher grain protein concentrations under elevated CO2 conditions, focusing on varieties that contain the specific gluten protein combinations necessary for a delicious loaf.