Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A changing climate means a changing menu

By Michael Hoffmann

...But let's take a few steps back. Our meal came to us from around the world thanks to a complex and interconnected global food system. It involves picking, packing, cleaning, hauling and shipping saffron from Kashmir, India; rice from Vietnam; fruit from Chile; wheat from Kansas; and other ingredients from thousands of points around the globe.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s "Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System" report released during the 2015 Paris Climate Conference earlier this month points to a new reality. All of these dots and their connections in this global system are under an intensifying threat: Climate change is fundamentally altering our menu. "Big Food" is taking notice of these changes, and so should we.

Let's start with the cherries in my Manhattan. Cherry trees, like most fruit trees, require a winter dormancy period, but California's winters are warming and that critically important window of time will likely be much shorter in the coming years. Grapes are fussy about high temperatures, too, and shifts in where they can be grown are on the horizon.

Our oysters are threatened; according to a new report by the National Wildlife Federation, oyster reefs are on the front lines for damage from global climate change. Warmer oceans will mean more algae, which can make it harder for oysters to reproduce. And a more acidic ocean will create a more challenging environment for young oysters to grow their shells.

Even the ingredients in our salad will be affected. It is predicted that, in 30 years, there will be a 40 percent decrease in avocados due to rising temperatures in California. New varieties of heat-tolerant lettuce will be needed. Some tomatoes grown in the northeastern U.S. already need to be grown under plastic, as cooler and wetter springs increase the odds of late blight, a devastating disease that can wipe out a crop in a few days. More frequent heavy rains can wash away crop nutrients and seed, and make work in the field impossible at times.

On to the main course: Off the coast of New England, lobster harvests have shifted northward due to changing ocean temperatures. According to Cornell University research, Gulf of Maine waters have warmed more rapidly during the past decade than 90 percent of the global ocean. Shrimp, a cold-water species, are in rapid decline in the region. Saffron, the world's most expensive spice, is in serious trouble because of increasing temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns where it is grown in Kashmir. And rising sea levels are creeping into coastal rice production areas in Vietnam, one of the largest exporters of rice in the world.

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