SEATTLE — U.S. Department of Agriculture officials made a behind-the-scenes effort last year to cast doubt on a study co-authored by two University of Washington researchers about how climate change would affect the nutrients in rice.
The UW scientists were part of an international team that included two federal agricultural scientists. They studied how increased levels of carbon dioxide forecast for the end of the century could diminish the nutritional value of rice, and joined together to co-author a peer-reviewed study accepted by a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In May 2018, weeks before the scheduled publication, findings in the rice study became a source of concern for program leaders of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
“The narrative isn’t supported by the data in the paper,” wrote Sharon Durham, a department public affairs specialist in a May 7, 2018, email to a Jeff Hodson, communications director for the UW School of Public Health.
Durham noted the USDA had decided not to send out a news release to publicize the study. “Please let me know how you will proceed with your own press release.”
A statement Durham released to Politico and later to The Seattle Times said the concerns had nothing to do with the study’s focus on climate change. They came from career scientists, Durham wrote, adding that no political appointees viewed the draft news release before the decision was made not to send it out.
“The nutrition program leaders at ARS disagreed with the implication in the paper that 600 million people are at risk of vitamin deficiency,” the statement said.
But a veteran researcher with a lead role in the study thinks the politics of climate change in the Trump administration’s USDA factored into what he views as an attempt to discredit the findings.
“It was a very bizarre set of circumstances. I had been at USDA, altogether for 26 years, and nothing like that had ever occurred to me,” Lewis Ziska said.
The multiyear study looked at what happens to a range of rice strains when grown under carbon-dioxide concentrations at end-of-the-century levels, which are forecast to be markedly higher due to the combustion of fossil fuels. The study involved eight researchers from the U.S., Japan, Australia and China. In test plots, some rice was grown with the higher levels of carbon dioxide, while control plots received no additional carbon dioxide.
The UW news release noted the study showed how rice grown at the century’s end is expected to have lower levels of four B vitamins as well as less protein, zinc and iron, and it noted that the impacts will have a disproportionate impact on poor countries where rice is a dietary mainstay.
Despite the lack of USDA support for the study, promotional efforts by UW and the editors of Science Advances helped stir media interest, with The Washington Post, The New York Times and other outlets in the U.S. and internationally reporting on the findings.
The USDA did make Ziska available for interviews. But after the splash of publicity for the study faded, Ziska, disillusioned, decided the time had come to leave. Now at Columbia University, he will continue his research on the impacts of a warming world on agriculture.