Energy & Environment

A changing climate means a changing menu

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Imagine that you and I are dining at a restaurant for a very special meal, where the choices are wide, the server is welcoming and knowledgeable, and the atmosphere is cozy — a perfect place for a crisp December evening. I order a Manhattan, three cherries, and you select a nice white wine. After a selection of raw oysters, we enjoy simple salads of mixed greens, avocado, cherry tomatoes and fresh parmesan. The conversation is warming up as we work our way to our main courses: lobster bisque for me, grilled shrimp and saffron rice for you. We end with coffee, chocolate mousse and panna cotta. Bon appétit!

{mosads}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.

Our global coffee business is changing rapidly due to ever-so-slight changes in temperatures and increases in rain and drought extremes. Retail prices for some grinds are expected to increase by 300 percent, with countries like Costa Rica, India and Ethiopia hardest hit. Add to this the spread of insect pests and diseases, both accelerated by the changing climate. As for chocolate, most cocoa trees are in West Africa, where the climate is hot and humid. But climate models predict it will get much drier. Our panna cotta may not be spared, either. Hot cows produce less milk.

So the next time you order a meal in a restaurant, take a moment to consider where it all comes from and the effort it takes to get it to your plate. The millions of individuals who grow our food are in a business that is getting riskier, which means our food system is becoming less secure. While the changes to our menu here at home are minor today, they already leading to political instability in the Middle East and Africa.

To stay ahead of these changes, we need to help farmers find innovative ways to adapt to the changes with more resilient crops, programs that help keep soil healthy, information about how to deal with too much or too little water, and much more. The USDA Climate Hubs, our research universities, the food industry and other key players in our global food system need to work together like never before. We need to fund research and extension outreach through climate-smart farming programs to help those who grow our food succeed despite unprecedented challenges.

Hoffmann is executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the Department of Entomology. Views expressed in his column are his alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

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