Human Nutrition and the Environment
  • September 27, 2021
  • by Victoria Behm, MS, CNS, LDN & Corinne Bush, MS, CNS

The centuries since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution have been defined by innovations in agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, and economics, which have led to the exponential growth of the global population and the extension of human life expectancy. [1] Rapid population growth has put strains on the natural resources that humans continue to rely on – energy, food, water, land, and materials. [1] 


A careful exploration of the literature in both environmental and nutritional sciences paint a picture of intricately connected systems, wherein innovation has come at the expense of planetary and human health. The Lancet Commission on Planetary health states the problem in this way, “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present.“ [2] 

Food Systems Impact the Environment 

Consumption of resources has increased dramatically as the global population has increased. Consequently, the demand for cheaper animal foods and processed foods has grown along with increasing rates of chronic diseases attributable to such diets [3, 4]. Agricultural practices have rapidly altered production methods to meet consumer demands, further exacerbating environmental and human health concerns. For example, a myopic focus on crop yields in the agricultural sector has led to poor land management, deforestation, and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, which now threaten biodiversity and the health of many ecosystems. [5, 6] In fact, the increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the last 150 years is almost completely a direct result of human activity with food systems and agriculture contributing more GHG than the total emissions from all the vehicles on the planet. [6-8] 

Environmental Changes Impacting the Health of Our Food Supply

1. Plant Nutrition Status

Plants convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugars and other carbohydrates, while taking up minerals and other nutrients from the soil. Trials in crop plants have shown that increased exposure to CO2 leads to an increased ratio of carbohydrates to minerals; an overall reduction of 25 minerals including calcium, potassium, zinc, and iron; and a reduction in plant protein concentrations. [9, Loladze, 2014 #210, 10] Since the Industrial Revolution, the rise in the atmospheric CO2 level is thought to have increased the production of sugars and other carbohydrates in plants by up to 46%, a trend expected to continue in coming decades. [10] As humans continue to rely on these staple crops, increased carbohydrate concentrations, along with lower mineral and protein from these plants, may exacerbate the obesity and non-communicable disease epidemic. [10, 11] 

2. Pollinators

Pollinators are crucial to the health of our ecosystems and food supply. However, altered land use, air pollution, and climate change are reducing populations of pollinating insects and animals around the globe. Recent findings indicate that the global burden of disease may have an inverse relationship with the health of our pollinators. Plants produce many compounds, such as phytochemicals and vitamins, that protect humans against non-communicable diseases. Widespread pollinator declines could lead to reduced availability of plant foods rich in these nutrients, particularly in vulnerable populations. [12] Global pollinator declines are expected to impact the availability of protective plant foods, thus contributing to increased mortality rates from heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and diabetes. [12]

3. Glyphosate-Based Herbicides 

Use of Glycosate-Based Herbicide (GBH) increased approximately 100-fold from 1974 to 2014, and its use is expected to continue to escalate in intensified agricultural settings. [13] GBHs are used on plants genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide. This increases crop yields, however, the downstream impacts on soil health, surrounding ecosystems, and human health are the subject of much research and contentious public debate. Studies have elucidated that glyphosate and GBHs can alter the balance of microbes in soil, pollinators, and vertebrates [14-17]. Furthermore, GBHs are chelating agents, binding to essential micronutrients such as zinc, cobalt, and manganese, which are critical for physiological function in plants and people. When GBHs bind these nutrients, they become inactive or unavailable, further potentiating nutrient deficiencies linked to a host of conditions. [12] Furthermore, projections regarding glyphosate’s impact on human health suggest that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen and that GBHs may play a role in Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and disrupt endocrine signaling. [12] Reports regarding hazards for human health are conflicting, however, it is clear that human exposures to glyphosate are rising. A number of studies have challenged the decades-old basis for the current safety assessment of glyphosate. Vandenberg et al. conclude that “current safety standards for GBHs are outdated and may fail to protect public health or the environment.” [13]


  1. McLamb E: The Ecological Impact of the Industrial Revolution. 2011. Accessed August 2019. Available from: 

2. Whitmee S, Haines A, Beyrer C, Boltz F, Capon AG, de Souza Dias BF, Ezeh A, Frumkin H, Gong P, Head P, Horton R, Mace GM, Marten R, Myers SS, Nishtar S, Osofsky SA, Pattanayak SA, Pongsiri MJ, Romanelli C, Soucat A, Vega J, Yach D: Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: Report of The Rockefeller Foundation's Commission on planetary health. The Lancet. 386(10007): p. 1973-2028, 2015. 

3. Srour B, Fezeu LK, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, Méjean C, Andrianasolo RM, Chazelas E, Deschasaux M, Hercberg S, Galan P, Monteiro CA, Julia C, Touvier. M: Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé). BMJ (Clinical research ed.). 365: p. l1451-l1451, 2019. 

4. Koene RJ, Prizment AE, Blaes A, Konety SH: Shared Risk Factors in Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer. Circulation. 133(11): p. 1104-1114, 2016. 

5. Fanzo J: Sustainable Diets for Nutrition and Environmental Health: The impact of food choices, dietary patterns and consumerism on the planet. 2016. Accessed August 2019. Available from: 

6. Behrens P, Kiefte-de Jong JC, Bosker T, Rodrigues JFD, de Koning A, Tukker A: Evaluating the environmental impacts of dietary recommendations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 114(51): p. 13412-13417, 2017. 

7. Foley, J. A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World. 2014. Accessed August 2019. Available from: 

8. United States Environmental Protection Agency: Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Accessed August 2019. 2019. Available from:

9. Myers SS, Zanobetti A, Kloog I, Huybers P, Leakey AD, Bloom AJ, Carlisle E, Dietterich LH, Fitzgerald G, Hasegawa T, Holbrook NM, Nelson RL, Ottman MJ, Raboy V, Sakai H, Sartor KA, Schwartz J, Seneweera S, Tausz M, Usui Y: Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition. Nature. 510(7503): p. 139-42, 2014. 

10. Loladze I: Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO₂depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition. eLife. 3: p. e02245-e02245, 2014. 

11. Medek DE, Schwartz J, Myers SS: Estimated Effects of Future Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations on Protein Intake and the Risk of Protein Deficiency by Country and Region. Environmental health perspectives. 125(8): p. 087002-087002, 2017.

13. Vandenberg LN, Blumberg B, Antoniou MN, Benbrook CM, Carroll L, Colborn T, Everett LG, Hansen M, Landrigan PJ, Lanphear BP, Mesnage R, Vom Saal FS, Welshons WV, Myers JP: Is it time to reassess current safety standards for glyphosate-based herbicides? J Epidemiol Community Health. 71(6): p. 613-618, 2017. 


14. Motta EVS, Raymann K, Moran NA: Glyphosate perturbs the gut microbiota of honey bees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 115(41): p. 10305-10310, 2018. 

15. Newman MM, Hoilett N, Lorenz N, Dick RP, Liles MR, Ramsier C, Kloepper JW: Glyphosate effects on soil rhizosphere-associated bacterial communities. Science of The Total Environment. 543: p. 155-160, 2016. 

16. Shehata AA, Schrödl W, Aldin AA, Hafez HM, Krüger M: The effect of glyphosate on potential pathogens and beneficial members of poultry microbiota in vitro. Current microbiology. 66(4): p. 350-358, 2013. 

17. Krüger M, Schledorn P, Schrödl W, Hoppe HW, Lutz W, Shehata AA: Detection of Glyphosate Residues in Animals and Humans. J Environ Anal Toxicol. 4(210), 2014.