Skip to main content

New Product Launch: ClimateLens Monitor Yield Outlook - see regional and location-specific yields on key commodity crops, updated weekly.Learn More

Dr. Lewis Ziska – Rising CO2 Levels Makes our Food Less Nutritious

Feb 5, 2020

Lewis Ziska, PhD is a plant physiologist and an associate professor at Columbia University. Dr. Ziska studies the nexus of climate change, carbon dioxide, plant biology and public health and has published over 100 peer-reviewed research articles.

He was formerly with the USDA until summer 2019 when he resigned after having critical work with implications for millions around the world, blocked by the Trump administration in an unprecedented effort to silence academia and the search for truth.

This week in Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi:

– If CO2 is plant food, shouldn’t more of it be good for plants? Not by a long shot

– Higher atmospheric CO2 is causing a food/public health emergency in developing countries

– What is the role of food businesses in protecting consumer health & taking the mantle on sustainability?

00:00 / 00:00

Borna (ClimateAi) 0:04
This is Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi. Every week we speak with industry leading executives, farmers and academics to get a 360 view of how the agriculture sector is innovating to stay ahead of a changing climate. I’m your host Borna Poursheikhani.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 0:18
And I am your co host Himanshu Gupta.

Borna (ClimateAi) 0:20
We’re a team of climate scientists and agriculture entrepreneurs trying to make farming more resilient, profitable and equitable as we transition to a new age of agriculture. This podcast is our journey as we explore the hurdles and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry that feeds the world. Hello, and welcome. We have another exciting episode for you guys here today with us we have Dr. Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with over 20 years of experience, pushing the envelope on research pertaining to the effect of climate change and rising carbon dioxide on agriculture and food security invasive species, plant biology and public health. He has published over 100 peer reviewed research articles and was a contributor to the food security portion of the 2014 International Panel on Climate Change report. He worked the USDA Agricultural Research Service for more than two decades and is currently continuing his research at Columbia University. Lewis, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 1:15
Thank you for having me.

Borna (ClimateAi) 1:16
So, the way we usually start these episodes is sort of give our audience some background on you and maybe your connection to agriculture as well as you know, just your story in any important things that you want to rope in there.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 1:27
Yeah, I graduated with my doctorate at the University of California Davis and was really interested in trying to find a niche for myself something that was unique to me, as with a whole hot young postdocs, you’re looking for something different, something that would be unique to you something where you can make a name for yourself and explore the science simultaneously. So I was fortunate enough to get a Smithsonian fellowship in DC and became involved with a project look And how rising levels of carbon dioxide were affecting different souls of our species. And this was really cool. This was back when we thought okay, well we know carbon dioxide absorbs heat. But it also is, as you probably know, a plant food. The idea that more co2 would mean more plant growth was really fascinating to me. And so I got started with that. I went through all the different machinations, all the different corners, all the different, you know, things that happen when you’re starting out and ended up going to the international rice Research Institute. After I have done some work with rice to Duke University on another postdoc, and really found it exciting and really interesting. One of the aspects that doesn’t get talked enough about in the context of climate change, is we all talk about the temperature surface temperature melting glaciers, sea level rise all you know Really pertinent, very sexy stuff. But plants don’t get the attention that they deserve. Even though plants are the basis of the food chain, anything that affects plants, overall is going to affect all living things. And here we are seeing that as carbon dioxide is rising, yes, it’s plant food, but hey, not every plant responds to the same way to it. Who knew? So if I’m growing crops and I’m growing weeds, Cillizza respond more an actual crop yields tend to go down. If you’re looking at nutrition, we’re finding changes, the stoichiometry the elemental balance, plants are becoming carbon rich and nutrient poor. If you’re looking at it from not just a food perspective, what if you’re looking at plants as a source of medicine? Well, you’re also going to affect that we have a multi billion dollar war on drugs in this country looking at how we’re going to eradicate coca great, but what happens to coca, you know, starts growing up the hillside because it’s warmer, or it starts producing more of, you know, its particular material. There’s so much involved with this that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. And over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to see what some of these likely effects are going to be we’re seeing in real time as well as what’s been forecast.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 4:23
There’s clearly a lot to unpack here, Lewis and I would start with, when you said, the traditional notion used to be that more co2 means more plant growth. So hey, climate change is good for the earth. So can you help our audience understand, what was the thought process? So when you started looking into this into the space at Okay, wait a minute, maybe you know, more plant growth and we’re coming to oxide is not exactly how the nature works. So what was the thought process going in your mind that led you to believe that okay, I should investigate further into this area.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 4:56
It’s actually a pretty elemental process. One of the first things If you learn a plant biology are, what does plants What do plants need in order to grow? Well, you can ask for this anybody can they need water, they need light. They need nutrients that is fertilizer, phosphorus, potassium and so forth. And they need carbon dioxide. So if I change any one of these, I’m going to change every aspect of plant biology. Well, that’s a good thing, though, right? Well, maybe what happens if I have a field? Let’s say that’s growing wheat. And within that field, on average, in the United States, there’s about nine different lead species. Suppose co2 starts going up? Well, what’s likely to be affected? The one monoculture of the wheat that’s growing there are the other eight or nine weed species that are genetically diverse, capable of producing 10s of thousands of seeds that that are genetically different. Well Guess what it’s not, you know, it’s not the wheat, it’s the weeds. And so when you keep that in mind that all these different aspects are going to be impacted by this change in co2 and much the same way they would be impacted if light were going up, or if water were changing or nutrients, we’re changing, you know, soil nutrients, we’re changing, all of this is going to be impacted. And this is one of the things that doesn’t get enough attention. So what are the ramifications of all that? So let’s say not just in a field in an agricultural field, let’s say you have a rain forest. In fact, one of the really interesting experiments was not with the rain forest, but with the pine forests that was done in an outdoor experiment down at the Duke for us. I was fortunate to be part of and what happened was they gave an outdoor environment, more carbon dioxide to a pine for us, and the pine screw a little bit, but all of the different understory plants, which one was the One that grew the most boys in it. So to say that, oh yeah, co2 is plant food, and that’s going to be wonderful. And it’s going to be great. No, no, it’s going to affect every fundamental aspect of trophic interactions of how food gets transferred from plants to insects or insects, to fish, from fish, to bigger fish, and so forth and so on. This is it’s hard to convey just how important and how widespread this impact is going to have. And you understand why people don’t get it. I mean, you know, not everyone is into plants, you know, you’re traveling a 995. You just look over to the side and you see, oh, that’s a nice green background. But that green background is alive. It has all of these different aspects that are part of how it’s competing with the environment. And to suddenly change one of those fundamental aspects in this case, carbon dioxide, it’s going to result in a lot of different effects in And then consequence. So if I change basic elemental substance like carbon dioxide, how does that change the biodiversity of that forest? In the case of the Duke experiment? Well, it turned out that poison ivy was the dominant species. So in the future as poison ivy grows more as it becomes more prevalent as it shifts, what does that mean in terms of ecosystem function? And I could go on for a long time, but I’m going to bore everybody so but you get you get the sense, though, that this is really an overlooked aspect of what’s happening in regards to climate change that the carpet dog side of and by itself, will significantly affect all living systems on the planet. And to dismiss it as just Oh, co2 is plant food is ludicrous.

Borna (ClimateAi) 8:49
This is why your work was so interesting to me because I mean, we, we build tools for climate resilience. So how can we deal with the impacts of the climate change of the increased variability of These extreme weather events that we’re starting to see. But one part that that even I overlooked until I kind of ran into your research was, we’re kind of skipping a step and looking at what will the carbon dioxide itself do. And you touched a little bit on the ecosystems. But really one of the things that I think is most fascinating about your work is the impact of co2 on nutrition and plants. And I think you’ve done a fair amount of work with regards to rice as well as a few other crops, would you mind kind of giving us the overview of how co2 negatively affects nutrition and plants and the implications of that on public health around the world.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 9:33
What happens is that plants consists of a balance of different elements, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, copper, zinc, iron, etc. And we get all of our elements from plants. We don’t manufacture any of them on our own. We either do get them directly from plants or we get them from a livestock that feed on plants. So any effect on on The nutritional composition of plants is going to have a big impact. So how a rising co2 affect that balance? Plants are very adaptable. And what happened? What’s happening right now is that the carbon in the atmosphere is going up very, very quickly. And what’s happening is that the other elements, the nitrogen, the phosphorus, and potassium, that are in the soil are not keeping pace with that. So as co2 stimulates plant growth, we’re seeing this sort of diffuse, change the cancer becoming carbon rich, but nutrient poor. So what does that mean in terms of human health? Well, one of the things that happens globally, is for those countries that are basically are not their core. And if they get a lot of their nutrients from a single commodity like rice, so Bangladesh, for example, something like 70% of their daily calories come from rice. So In the case of rising co2, what we’re seeing for now across the board is that rice is reducing the concentrations of zinc. Why is that important? Well, because zinc is a fundamental element necessary for human growth for human brain development. For a lot of other aspects of human physiology, the two are linked. Iron is doing the same thing. Other aspects of different elements like iodine, and selenium and other things that are part of human physiology are also likely to change but we haven’t directly measured them. All of this is to say is that when the nutritional profile of plants changes, and it appears to be changing, with plants becoming carbon rich, taking advantage of that additional carbon in the atmosphere, but nutrient poor, whereby the nutrients from the soil are not able to keep pace, and you’re getting this fundamental imbalance within the food chain, and the implications of that for humans are important, but I would just add, and I understand why we want to look at humans because hey, you know, we think we’re the best thing ever. But it’s not just that we did a study where we looked at goldenrod goldenrod is this fall flowering species bright yellow, it’s beautiful. And it’s also a source of pollen for pollinators for bees during the fall before they overwinter. So it’s an important source of food just before these become quiescent. And what we saw is looking at the samples from the Smithsonian, is that during the last hundred years or so, the actual amounts of nitrogen, which is a surrogate for protein, have gone down by 25 to 30%. For samples taken from North America, so it’s not just people. It’s every aspect of the food chain, including pollinators that are likely to be affected by this. And yet we can’t seem to get the resources necessary to study with us. This means and I, you know, I understand, you know, the whole, again, the whole, everything is warming, the globe is melting sea levels rise, I understand that that’s obviously important. But again, this is an important part of this change as well and needs to be studied.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 13:18
Yeah, this is very interesting and it suddenly rhymes with us because two days ago, we were presenting at a seed conference and we we presented a figure that since 2014, we have reverse progress on food security. In 2016, alone, we added 14 million people to the basket of being undernourished around the world. You know, so, you you understand Louise and of course, you have dedicated your life to this research and you know, Borna and I, you know, we working in, in a climate field, we understand, but how does it impact you know, a normal consumer. In India in China, you I know, you talked about rice in Bangladesh. So let’s say wheat and rice, I come from India. wheat and rice is a staple crop for India. So Isn’t this the responsibility of the food companies from whom I’m buying this rice to ensure that rice and wheat has sufficient iron content or, you know, other nutrients that are required? And I’m used to the, you know, extracting from wheat and rice? What is my responsibility to be worried about that?

Dr. Lewis Ziska 14:23
So my question would be, then what is what incentivizes a farmer to grow a variety of rice or a variety of wheat that’s high and higher?

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 14:32
Before that, like is it the case that the food companies on the buyers of wheat and rice from farmers directly, they are not able to track nutrient content in wheat and rice?

Dr. Lewis Ziska 14:43
So the primary thing that they’re going to track is yield. every farmer that you talk to the thing that they will talk about is how much yield I got this year and how much money that yield brings him in terms that so they’re always talking about quantity. They’re not talking about quality and You know, that’s an aspect that needs to be considered in this. And until food companies can begin to incentivize those aspects of their growers that they purchase the food from, then there isn’t going to be much shift at the grower level. And one of the ways that we think we can achieve this is actually to go and look at it from a consumer point of view. If consumers go to a company and they start buying something that’s advertises itself as a flour, made from wheat, where the flowers high in iron, they will buy it, maybe they have to pay a couple pennies more for it, but they’ll buy it because that’s something that they may be concerned about. Once they do that, then from an economic sense, it makes it will trickle back down from the people that are purchasing the wheat to the growers. If they go to the growers and say look, we’re going to give you a premium, if you can affect grow the business. ticular variety that has more iron, or more zinc or whatever. And one of the things that science can do, what basically agronomic science can do is to begin to identify those lines of wheat or rice that in fact, are going to be able to maintain these concentrations. Even as carbon dioxide goes up even as temperature goes up.

Borna (ClimateAi) 16:22
I want to just highlight the importance of this discussion around rice. Because rice is one of the most important crops in the world. I think 50% of the world relies on rice in some sort of significant capacity, and over 600 I think this is actually your work this site, the 600 million people rely on rice for two thirds of their daily calories. So the fact that we’re getting less protein less iron in this rice is of significant importance for the entire world. Can you explain why protein content as well as iron content are specifically important for public health when we were talking, you mentioned the importance of iron amongst pregnant women. You mentioned the importance of protein for overall health. Would you mind digging into that a little bit.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 17:04
One of the things that protein consists of is nitrogen. When you look at any protein structure, there’s a lot of nitrogen in it. If I’m increasing carbon dioxide, again, the carbons going up, but the soil constituents that go into making the composition of the plant are not keeping pace with it. So as co2 rises, plants take additional carbon. But what they do is they because they’re photosynthesizing more efficiently, with more co2, they don’t need to invest as much of the nitrogen into some of the proteins that they normally would invest in. One of the biggest ones is Romulus, this phosphate chromebox. lysyl oxidase are also known as rubisco. rhymes with this guy. So it’s the primary enzyme plants that basically grabs the carbon dioxide out of the air, puts it together with other carbon and make sugars and it makes lipids and it makes proteins and it makes all the things that you as a consumer need in order to grow. So as co2 makes plants more become more efficient in this instance, what that means is you get the need for nitrogen is not as great. So the amount of nitrogen per leaf area, the amount of protein per leaf area, the amount of iron per leaf area, the amount of zinc per variant goes down. So, again, in very basic terms, you’re seeing this carbon rich nutrient poor type outcome. And when you have these folks where rice is the primary constituent of their diet, then they’re going to be impacted more than other richer countries, because the other richer countries have more variety. So they’re not just getting their protein or their iron from a single source. They’re getting it from multiple sources. And by doing that, that basically gives them an insurance policy. So that they’re not going to be as impacted with respect to rising co2 effects in regard to plant nutrition.

Borna (ClimateAi) 19:07
So basically, we have kale, we have lagoons, we have grocery stores with all these options, we have protein supplements we can take, but in a place where they’re getting the majority of their calories from one crop, they rely on that crop to provide them the nutrition and before I would do that, there will be extremely detrimental impact potentially on the population. Am I understanding that correctly?

Dr. Lewis Ziska 19:26
You can’t see me but I’m pointing up my nose and pointing a finger. That’s exactly right.

Borna (ClimateAi) 19:31
So okay, I want to bring this back just to the consumer level, like we oftentimes see enriched rice as an option. And stores are enriched rice milk or stuff like rich row

Dr. Lewis Ziska 19:41
or enriched flour.

Borna (ClimateAi) 19:43
Yeah. Enriched flour. Yeah. Is that a viable way to combat this? Or do we have to go through the breeding process and seed selection process through time? Like, is that a shortcut? Or is that going to be able to provide some sort of impact? Or is it even economically feasible in a lot of these empowering Countries

Dr. Lewis Ziska 20:00
that can provide a short term positive feedback. And for again, this is a question I think of economics, where if you’re a rich country and you have access to processed food because all these enrichments occur as part of the process, and the reason they occur, interestingly enough, is that if you didn’t bleach flour for example, if you just took flour and from germ plasm wheat drum that was ground up, it has oils in it, and after a while those oils start to rot. So if you consume the bread made from this whole wheat directly, then it’s fine, but if you don’t, it won’t sit on the shelf very long. So what food manufacturers have done is basically bleach everything out, then add everything back and have done that in a way that allows you to have a shelf life of 100 years. I’m sure there are Twinkies that are still sitting on a shelf somewhere that will Be there 100 years from now.

Borna (ClimateAi) 21:01
And they’re accruing in value. I have somebody.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 21:03
Yeah. Well, there you go. But in terms of whether or not supplements or enrichment will be the be the cure all for a co2 induce changes in nutrition? I think that’s only part of the story. Yes, they can make a difference. But I think the other thing that can make a difference is a recognition of these changes, and be breeding efforts to begin to address what these changes might be. So that we can begin to put out grains, because as you mentioned earlier, wheat and rice are the primary food substances for like a third of third half of the world. So it’s important to begin to at a fundamental level, to begin to select and debriefer those things. And I think maybe one of the ways to do it is what we just talked about, did you give an incentive, if consumers can provide an incentive for growers to include some of these models For nutrients that are likely to be impacted by rising co2, so that when you go to the store you you can buy the advert is, well, this is our new co2 resistant high iron, you know, flower, maybe that’s something consumers might want to think about buying,

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 22:17
this will be very concerning for emerging economies and where malnourishment is still increasing. For example, in in some sections of the society in India and Bangladesh people live under $30 a month or $40 a month of incomes and expecting them to pay higher for to get the same level of nutrients they were used to getting from rice and wheat, it might be infeasible also might become a political problem later on.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 22:43
Why isn’t it a political problem to begin with? Like why I mean, governments have food security requirements is nutrition not currently part of the requirements Is it is it purely just focusing on yield, most of the focus is on yield in terms of the food chain. Less focuses on Nutrition per se. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any. But let me give you an example. Have you ever been to McDonald’s? Yes. Okay, so I like I’ve nothing against McDonald’s. I like their french fries. But those fries come from one variety of potato called Russet Burbank. And by all indications, what we’re saying is that as co2 changes, there are going to be compositional and nutritional changes in Russet Burbank with rising co2. So, if you consume these kinds of foods, fast foods, then you have to be able to give feedback to the growers that say, hey, I’ve been reading about this and you know, I just learned that maybe more co2 might affect the nutritional profile. These are things that we you know, we want to give you some some feedback on we want you to try and make a difference so that if I, you know, I know that my food is going to be nutritionally relevant If you’re poor, then it becomes a more it’s a harder road to to follow. How can you begin to influence or incentivize farmers to grow food that will be higher and these micronutrients that, you know, are essential. And I will just add that it’s not just there are people in the United States that are called what we call food deserts where they get, you know, their fruits and vegetables from a local store. And often those are potatoes or bread or things that are high count, calorie dense, but they don’t have a lot of the micronutrients that are necessary to promote the proper growth and well being. So I think, right now, money rules. And so unless you change that paradigm to include the nutritional and compositional opponents that are important for you House, that will still be the case. And I just can’t say there’s one way to do that. I suspect there’s a number of ways to do that. But to me, the thing that seems to make the most sense is for consumers to basically reflect back in a way that will affect what growers and what food companies do.

Borna (ClimateAi) 25:20
The other interesting thing that I want to point out for rice, that read through some of your work, as well as some of some other research that I’ve been, that I’ve been doing over the past few weeks is that rice also has an affinity to soak up arsenic. And you know, in your work, we were seeing a lot of these quality affects of carbon dioxide, but it’s projected that the temperature increases the mean temperature increases will lead to about 10 to 12% reduction in yield overall. So that is a metric that growers care about. And then the arsenic will add another 30% on top of that, so I think we’re expected to see like 40% reductions depending on the type of temperature changes we see in the yield itself.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 26:00
Sort of two things that are going on. And let me see if I can describe it with respect to co2 by itself. The only studies that we’ve looked at suggests something similar to what we see with other with other elements. And that is a carbon rich, but element poor nutrient port, so we actually see less arsenic. With more co2. It’s more carbon less arsenic. That’s one aspect. The other aspect however, has to do with climate. And what happens with climate is you can get a lot of rain or changes in rainfall event changes and extreme precipitation. And when that happens, you change the amount of oxygen that’s in the soil. And when you change the redox potential of the soil, you can change the amount of arsenic that is available to be taken up by the plant. So in one instance, or one potential instance, with more co2 there could be less per in terms of To see less arsenic in the sea. On the other hand, the amount of acreage where rice is being grown, could be more susceptible to additional arsenic uptake.

Borna (ClimateAi) 27:11
That makes sense and why why is rice susceptible to essentially being poisoned by arsenic?

Dr. Lewis Ziska 27:17
Well, let me give you a quick history lesson. You often see rice growing in the middle of a flooded field. Why?

Borna (ClimateAi) 27:24
I just assume that’s how it’s done.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 27:26
It’s actually done to prevent weeds. What has happened culturally over time, is that obviously prior to herbicides being invented, you had a way to keep the weeds out of rice. Rice is not a very strong competitor. So typically what happens today or what’s been happening for you know, the last few millennia with rice is that you grow it in a flooded field because there are very few plants that can grow under flooded conditions. Rice is one of them. And by doing that, then the by you You grow the rice separately, you flood the field to kill all the weeds and then you transplant the rice into the field. It is back breaking work, but it reduces the weed infestation. It keeps the yields of rice reasonably high. But there’s a cost in flooded fields as we were just talking about. He reduced the amount of oxygen in the soil from a biogeochemical point of view by reducing the amount of oxygen and I won’t go through all the nerdy details, but basically what that means is that it increases the availability of arsenic in the soil. And because it increases the availability of arsenic in the soil, because arsenic tends to flow with wherever the water is going. As the rice moves water through its roots to its stem to its leaves and evaporate. It also brings in arsenic with it. Got it that makes sense if you don’t have that sledded field. If you have a field that has more oxygen in it. And usually the amount of arsenic is almost zero.

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 29:04
Thinking about it from a consumer standpoint, this means more probability of cancer cases in areas where there is arsenic infestation in the rise tools

Dr. Lewis Ziska 29:15
that I as I’m not an MD, I don’t want to really comment on that I can’t tell you. arsenic obviously, is a heavy metal that is known to have a negative influence on a number of different human processes. And what you described could be a potential consequence. But that’s just an educated guess on my part,

Himanshu (ClimateAi) 29:36
to talking about consumer education itself. One of the unique things that we have noticed in your research is like, you’ve always tried to translate your research in ways that, you know, normal consumer can understand. And I think one of your last work at USDA was trying to do that. So you know, would you mind sharing with our listeners as to what was The last research that you did at USDA was all about and and what happened after that. And clearly, you transition out of USDA and and now you are, you know teaching at Columbia University.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 30:12
What I’ll try and do is give you sort of an overview. I’ve been working with a multinational group I’ve been doing rice work for for a number of years. And I was working with a multi international group to look at how rising co2 is going to affect all the different aspects of rice nutrition. We have some data that had been previously published looking at micronutrients, but we wanted to do protein micronet, chants and vitamins. For the reasons that we we stated we know there are some countries where rice is the primary source of calories, and we wanted to assess across the board how future co2 changes would affect the nutritional profiles of rice. We worked with folks And Japan, we work with folks and China, Australia and the University of Washington. We put together what I would consider a cutting edge data set. I wrote up the paper for this. And as part of USDA protocol, you send the paper to the national program staff for approval. When I wrote the paper, I sent it to the national program staff, they approved it. It went to Science Advances, they liked it, they were getting ready to publish it. The editor since I don’t email says, Hey, we think this is something that, you know, the media will pick up on and you write a press release. We asked USDA to write a press release, and then the proverbial excrement hit the fan. What happened was that even though they had approved the initial submission, the national program staff came back and send the data not support the conclusions of this paper that had never happened. The culture of the time was that work related to climate change, work related to carbon dioxide was having a harder and harder time getting the resources and funding that it needed to go forth. When this happened, that was a new precedent. And in addition, what happened was that USDA actually was calling up some of the other people associated with the group and saying, we’re not putting out a press release on that we don’t think you should either. When that occurred, I realized I could not staying with USDA. There’s no point staying with an agency who doesn’t believe that the work that you’re doing is important, or will make a difference, if all there they are doing is paying me to sit in my office and not work on something that I see. And what many scientists see as an existential threat to something as basic as Security, I needed to leave. And so I didn’t want to just leave. Because, you know, I want to be able to find a place where I can continue to do my science. And much to my surprise, Columbia University was really interested in hiring me, I had done a lot of work looking at the health consequences related to nutrition, but also related to pesticide use to plant based medicines and so on. And they thought that was a really interesting aspect, but not many folks were doing so I am very, very, very at many more various grateful to them for having me come here and for me, allowing me to continue this work and in a environment and a culture where the work is valued.

Borna (ClimateAi) 33:47
And thank you for sharing that. That’s, that’s kind of a sad place to be as the country I mean, here we are facing one of the biggest problems of our generation and I mean, climate change itself. It’s no secret has been kind of a polar issue. But the sad thing is the farmers are the ones that will be impacted most and the consumers will be impacted most by these things. So it’s a tough position to be in when you can’t perform the research that basically trying to adapt to the changes that we’re already seeing, let alone try to mitigate for the future.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 34:18
Right. It’s supposed to adaptation and mitigation. And there are ways to begin to approach it. Take a we were just talking about rice and flooding. But what’s happening in places in the Delta region of the Mississippi where a lot of the US rice is grown, is that the water table is falling. And it’s becoming more expensive to take the water up and flood rice as you normally would do. And when you flood rice, another thing that happens is that because of the lack of oxygen in the soil, you get more methane being released. And methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. So how do we how do we approach this? Well, there are four Send the USDA that we’re working on what was called last a net wetting and drying or a WD where you don’t keep the rice flooded all of the time, but only part of the time. And this was a way to prevent methane release, it cut down tremendously on methane. So you don’t go to the farmer and say, Oh, hey, bad farmer bad, you know, you’re releasing methane. What you do is you go to the farmer and say, Hey, we’re working on research that will lower your costs of pumping water up, and oh, by the way, it’s, you know, not going to affect your yield. But overall, you’ll save some money because, you know, so I’m going to cost you as much and you’re not going to use as much water. Oh, and by the way, you might, you know, reduce your method signature isn’t that great. So it’s just, it just depends on how you want to sell this on what you want to get the farmer to try and do there are other examples of this where you can begin to make the far more efficient and to reach Through energy costs, and at the same time mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, whether it’s, you know, rice farms or or livestock farms or other farms. There’s a tremendous opportunity there. And at the USDA, per se, there are a lot of really good scientists, technicians, staff that really enter this really talented. And you have a lot of farmers on the other side that really want to know more about it and want to be able to address it. And then in the middle, you have this, I don’t know 610 T Rex, that is emblematic of the current administration that says, Oh, no, it’s a Chinese hoax. We’re not going to give you any of the resources that you need in order to know it’s a Chinese hoax. It’s a liberal conspiracy. It’s whatever I’ve heard so many ways to describe it that I lost track. But basically the government is is there in the middle of We’re not going to, we’re not going to talk about our work that we’re doing. We’re not going to disseminate the findings, we’re not going to give the funds that we need in order to address this. What we will do is we’ll send the Economic Research Service at the National Institute of Food and two other states and, you know, have lots of scientists quit. And wasn’t that great. We got government scientists, those lazy no goods to you know, leave the government service. That’s antithetical to what being a government scientist is about. You’re trying to make a difference. You’re trying to help. You’re not, you know, you’re not there just getting a salary because, you know, you can’t find a job somewhere else. What was interesting to me is that, I mean, yeah, I think I was lucky to get to Columbia, but the people that I know that work at the Economic Research Service or the National Institute of Food and Ag, which are within the auspices of USDA, to searched them quit, but they all got new jobs with often more money. So it’s it’s insane to say that, Oh, well, government scientists are just saving it for the money. They’re, they’re, you know, they’re they’re proposing liberal conspiracy and they’re getting all this additional grant money from the government but you’re not really doing anything. That’s the biggest bunch of BS you could imagine. You know, if there’s some sort of conspiracy where I get money for being a climate change scientist, I kind of tell you, I missed out on that completely.

Borna (ClimateAi) 38:35
We’re part of that we can we can invite you don’t worry, we’ll, you can come to the next meeting.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 38:41
So yeah, I mean, that you know, maybe I missed the memo or I don’t know the proper password or something, but I totally lost out on that. So there’s so much more that can be done. There’s so much and what’s what’s encouraging Aside from the government, there are businesses that are becoming more interested in this may not the oil and gas businesses but you know, Kraft Foods as ours Incorporated, and Pepsi, and other folks who make their living or make their business model based on their ability to grow food. And so if I’m a chocolate producer, and I’m getting my cow from West Africa, wouldn’t I want to know what climate change is going to do to cocoa trees in the future? I would think so. It’s gonna increase the likelihood of production losses. Because, you know, there might be, you know, some, as the number of extreme events starts to go up. Maybe there’s going to be an extreme event that I should prepare for, that’s going to knock the chocolate production globally down by 10% or 20%. kind of how I compensate for that. What should my business plan be? So yeah, I mean, there’s just Not just, it’s not a liberal conspiracy, it’s science. And to the best of my knowledge, science is pretty much independent of what political party you belong to, or what religion you practice or any of those things. It’s just a way of understanding the world around you. And the ability to document it, say how you documented it, every scientific paper and then go from there.

Borna (ClimateAi) 40:26
Yeah, it is nice to see some of these private sector institutions kind of stepping up and taking on the mantle of, you know, pursuing things like nutrition pursuing things like sustainability. And the reality is for them, they they can’t afford to not have this sort of information. And that’s kind of like, the entire crux of our company is that these companies need this information and they’re looking for it and it’s currently very hard for them to find so you know, trying to help them with things like you know, what types of trades should we be breeding for for the next 20 years that we want to be selling seed? Where can we be growing Are hazelnut crop, you know, because it’s not going to be very viable in Turkey in the next, you know, 30 or 40 years. These are things that the private sector is thinking about, and they want the information and it’s not there. And that’s, that’s kind of where we’re trying to focus a lot of our energy.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 41:13
Sounds like a pretty good deal. Next time. They’re semi hazelnut. I’ll try and thank you.

Borna (ClimateAi) 41:19
In some of your work, you talk about the impact of climate change, as well as co2 on pathogens spread as well as allergies. Can you explain that a little bit more?

Dr. Lewis Ziska 41:32
It’s not very complex, it turns out that and as temperatures go up, and as the environment changes, you can affect pathogen load. Bacteria like it when it’s for bacteria like it when it’s wet. And one of the biggest potential issues we have is that once the crop has been harvested, the opportunities for that crop to become infected with some of these different pathogens are likely to go up with the Climate change? How much which pathogens? Which fruits? still an open question.

Borna (ClimateAi) 42:05
So what does that mean? Does that mean that? I mean, this is a hypothetical, but do we? Do we think that companies will be vetting this out? Or will or will these pathogens be getting like passed and consumers,

Dr. Lewis Ziska 42:15
it’s interesting to me anyway, that when I was growing up, you didn’t have to worry about cooking your food to a certain temperature before you ate it. Those kinds of warnings didn’t come with with food products back then. I think one of the things that has to be of concern and I haven’t documented this, perhaps others have is the reports of additional food contamination that are occurring everything from peanut butter to lead us to cheese to talk now, whatever, there’s just there’s a long list. And I think those are the kinds of things that companies obviously need to pay attention to, but perhaps even more so the growers themselves need to pay attention to it as something that puts them at risk. And so if I were grower ticularly, one that is processor that I’d want to make sure that, you know, I had the detection, equipment and infrastructure on hand to begin to look at some of these potential possibilities.

Borna (ClimateAi) 43:14
Awesome. Well, I mean, I learned a ton here. This was extremely useful. I think when we published this episode, we might have like four startups that are created to solve problems that we mentioned just just from you explaining some of these, some of these problems for us. And it seems like in this day and age, the private sector is kind of taking on the horns in terms of that. So hopefully, that does happen. But, Louis, thank you so much for joining us. We really learned a ton today, and hope to stay connected and talk to you soon.

Dr. Lewis Ziska 43:38
No worries. Thank you very much for doing this. It’s really appreciated.

Borna (ClimateAi) 43:43
Hey, everybody, thanks for listening. If you have any feedback, or you’d like to add your own two cents on the topic discussed today, or if you’ve just got your own ideas about someone that we should discuss in the future, please feel free to shoot me an email at at its core, this podcast is just a way for us to learn and we want to share our learnings as we go. So we’re always open to building on these conversations and hearing new perspectives. Thanks for your support and see you next time.


Tim Hammerich



Jul 9, 2021
Pablo Barrera – One of the greatest humanitarian creations of all time is also one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters. Here’s how we fix that.
May 5, 2021
Stuart Woolf – 325 Million lbs of Tomato Paste in 4 Months: How this CEO’s Family Farming Operation Became One of the Top Tomato Processors in the World
Apr 21, 2021
Timothy Coates – Agriculture Banking is Broken. This Co-founder is Fixing it… and He’s Helping You Sequester Carbon While He’s at It