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Climate Change and Its Effect on Our Food

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Climate change is messing with the food we love and need, big time.

Many of us can go to a restaurant and order from a long list of choices: beverages to whet the appetite, salads aplenty, main courses and sides, and dessert and coffee options. But everything on the menu is changing, and that’s what Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, is all about.

Climate change is affecting our food in subtle and sometimes ominous ways, and it all starts with a plant—the basis of life. Whether a tomato plant, giant redwood, or apple tree, it needs water, the right temperature, soil, air, and sunlight to flourish and grow. However, it’s all changing, except sunlight.

Climate change is affecting our food in subtle and sometimes ominous ways, and it all starts with a plant—the basis of life.

As the climate continues to change, some regions of the world will have adequate water and others far from it, reducing crop production. In the northeast US, increasing downpours are washing away soil and nutrients. It’s also getting warmer, with some surprising twists. Nights are warming faster than days, and cold months of the year are warming twice as fast as warm months. These changes have dramatic effects on crop yields. There is also a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and it’s climbing. This can actually increase yields, but any gain is expected to be offset by more extremes in weather. Weeds will likely get harder to control and the nutritional quality of major crops will decline, to mention just a few changes described in Our Changing Menu.

What’s changing on the menu? Let’s start with the grapes used to make a favorite beverage—wine. Warmer conditions can result in higher sugar levels, different aromatic compounds, and lower acidity levels, all of which can affect the quality of the wine. Moving on to salads, lettuce may be tastier, and in a couple of decades, California will produce forty % fewer avocados because it’s getting too hot. Instead of your favorite fish as the main dish, in future years you may see far more octopus and squid on the menu since they do much better in the warming oceans. The meat on your plate may be meatless or even cultured from scratch.  And your side dish—a spud— may be stunted, because it’s been too hot and dry. Finally, that chocolate cake for dessert will likely be pricier because the supply of cacao from Western Africa has dried up. Everything on the menu is changing, but despite the enormity of the challenge, there is hope.

Warmer conditions can result in higher sugar levels, different aromatic compounds, and lower acidity levels, all of which can affect the quality of the wine.

Our Changing Menu describes how scientists around the world are developing crops that are more climate-change resilient. For example, scientists in England are partnering with colleagues in Costa Rica to help develop more resilient cacao plants. Researchers with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service are finding ways to help farmers adapt to the new conditions and minimize their contributions to climate change. Our universities are deeply involved as well, in many cases working directly with farmers to find practical solutions to the ever-increasing challenges posed by climate change.

Farmers are adopting climate-smart practices that maintain the health of the soil and manage water—and pests—better. They’re diversifying crops where feasible to protect their incomes if some crops are lost to severe weather. Many farmers are using computer programs to help optimize crop production, consuming less energy, and producing much more renewable energy than in the past. There is a long way to go, but the stewards of the land are making progress.

The authors of Our Changing Menu close with guidance for all of us—what we can do.

The authors of Our Changing Menu close with guidance for all of us—what we can do. This includes becoming better informed about the science of climate change, the impacts it is having, and how to talk about it. Shifting to a more plant-based diet is very helpful, as is reducing food waste. But it’s not just all about food. Do we need to fly, drive, heat, cool, and consume so much? We all need to assess our contributions to climate change.

Finally, Our Changing Menu encourages us all to get involved. Engage policymakers, raise our voices, be an activist, be courageous, and join forces—consumers, farmers, chefs, restauranteurs, retailers, and many others. It could be the transformation we need.

If you eat and care about the future of humanity, read this book.

*Featured photo: A Growing Crop Field. Credit: Jan Kopriva.

Cover image of Our Changing Menu.
Read more about this book.

Michael P. Hoffmann is Professor Emeritus at Cornell University.

Carrie Koplinka-Loehr is a freelance writer with an MS in science education from Cornell University.

Danielle L. Eiseman is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.

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