Our Menu Won’t Be The Same

Our Menu Won’t Be The Same

Almost everything on the menu—from drinks to dessert—is changing, including foods that are part of our cultures, family traditions, and fond memories. This is the heart of the story.

 

Drinks

Alcoholic beverages have been around for thousands of years. People around the globe consume 49 billion gallons of beer, 6.5 billion gallons of wine, and almost 1 billion gallons of distilled spirits annually.

 

Salads

Ingredients for both salads and dressings are changing. Two salad fundamentals—avocados and olive oil—illustrate the challenges many salad ingredients face.

 

Main Course

When we gather around the table, one dish, the main course, is often central to the meal. Typically, that main attraction includes animal protein and climate change is affecting the animals we eat—and some of the animals we eat are also driving climate change.

 

Grains, Starches, and Other Sides

Grains, including wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, and millet, provide most of the nutrients and calories we need—60% of total calories for people in many developing countries.

 

Dessert

Dessert is a true celebration of chemistry and food that turns simple ingredients into dishes that delight the taste buds. We now explore how climate change affects a few key dessert ingredients—chocolate, dairy, and vanilla—and an item many of us consider essential, coffee.

Drinks: Beer

Beer

Enjoying an icy cold beer at the end of your day? The choices are nearly unlimited—ale, lager, stout, or porter…. Unfortunately things are changing for beer. Excessive heat and lack of rain are affecting the quality and usability of barley, the most commonly used grain to make beer. Some scientists predict that global barley yields will decline as much as 17% by the end of the century, reducing beer’s availability and increasing its cost.

Water shortages will continue to affect hop production in the US and Europe; a drought in 2015 reduced German hop production by 25%. Droughts can also affect the flavor of beer. In Northern California brewers had to use mineral-heavy groundwater, which can give beer an astringent taste.

To overcome these threats to our favorite beers, scientists are developing barley varieties that resist drought, tolerate heat, and can be harvested in early summer before the high temperatures. Experts are also on the prowl for wild hops resilient to some of these new challenges.

Brewers are joining together on a climate declaration to raise awareness of the new threat facing their industry, switching to renewable energy sources, and reducing water use by as much as 50%.

 

Drinks: Wine

Wine

Most wines are made with wine grapes. They are very sensitive to high temperatures, which raise sugar levels, lower acidity levels, and change aromatic compounds. In combination with less-dependable rainfall, higher temperatures will likely cut yields and lower grape quality in many regions of the world.

Floods in Europe have quadrupled since 1980 and extreme heat waves and droughts have doubled, making wine grape production more challenging. In California, wineries are reevaluating their future given the increasing risks posed by wildfires. Some scientists suggest that the world’s major wine-producing regions may see declines of 25% to 73% by 2050.

In response to this changing world some vintners are moving grape production north to cooler climes. Growers in traditional regions might still be able to grow grapes if they invest in irrigation and shade systems. Experts generally agree that developing resilient varieties is the best way to adapt to climate change and the wine industry is shifting toward a more sustainable business model worldwide.

Drinks: Spirits

Spirits

The business of distilled spirits was worth over $400 billion in 2019, but do climate change and distilled spirits mix? Rising temperatures will increase the amount of Scotch lost by diffusion through barrels. This “angel’s share” already amounts to about 29 million gallons each year.

Botanicals, herbs and spices that add flavors and colors to distilled spirits are at increasing risk. Saffron from India’s Kashmir Valley, is in rapid decline and increasing extreme weather is taking a toll on cloves, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg. 

Salads: Avocados

Avocados

People in the US eat over 8 lb. of avocados each year, but a changing climate is threatening this special fruit. US growers must cope not only with droughts in the West but also hurricanes in Florida. California avocado yields could decrease about 40% by 2060 unless growers adapt. With the threat of more droughts, avocado growers can improve their irrigation systems and potentially reduce water use up to two-thirds. Planting trees more densely also reduces water use.

 

Salads: Olive Oil

Olive Oil

Ripe olives are pressed to make the oil we use in salad dressings and cooking. Spain is the largest producer of olives in the world. Droughts, erratic weather and higher temperatures year-round are taking a toll on olives. Extended droughts reduce yield, olive size, and the oil content of the fruit.  Climate-related events across the Mediterranean in 2019 resulted in the poorest regional harvest in 25 years.

To keep the olive oil flowing, scientists and growers are developing and using more efficient irrigation. Some Greek olive producers grow other crops between rows of trees to help improve soil health and bring in extra income. In future years olive production is likely to shift to regions with adequate water and moderate temperatures.

Main Courses: Beef

Beef

In the US—the world’s largest producer and consumer of beef—people eat about 57 lb. per person annually. In developing countries beef helps address hunger and provides nutritional benefits, which is especially important for childrens’ cognitive development. However, in developed countries, consumption of red meat in particular often exceeds dietary recommendations.

From a climate-change perspective, beef has a large carbon hoofprint, producing about 50 times more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein than wheat and six times more than pork. Beef production also requires a lot of land: wheat uses only 4% as much land to produce the same amount of protein.

Most beef produced in the US is feedlot- or grain-finished. Typically beef animals graze for at least the first half of their lives and then are switched to a high-energy diet in a feedlot. This diet increases their growth rate and provides the quality of meat consumers demand, efficiently and at the least cost. Some farmers raise beef entirely on pasture and other forages. Such grass-fed beef accounts for a small fraction of US-produced beef. Most grass-fed beef is imported. Because grass-fed cattle graze on forages of lower quality, they take longer to reach the desired weight. Thus, they release more methane over their longer lifetimes than cattle in feedlots. Scientists estimate that to meet current demand with grass-fed beef would require a 30% increase in the number of cattle.

If cattle are grazed and finished on high-quality forages, the plants and soil sequester enough carbon to offset their emissions. Project Drawdown affirms this approach with the caveat that it works until the soil becomes carbon saturated. Others conclude that at a global level, the amount of carbon sequestration is small and outweighed by the emissions from the cattle. It’s a topic requiring ongoing research and one with great potential impact given that grazing occurs on about one-quarter of the world’s land area.

With increasing temperatures, researchers are breeding for cattle that are less sensitive to heat stress. Many producers provide shade and systems to cool cattle and adjust diets during hot weather to minimize stress. Scientists also see potential to modify the gut microbes in cattle, so they’ll produce fewer greenhouse gases.  Other potential options to reduce emissions include adding small amounts of kelp to diets and improving the nutritional quality of forages. Feed for cattle is also at risk as droughts are expected to increase and intensify in future years.

Main Courses: Chicken

Chicken

Roasted, fried, or tossed in barbeque sauce, chicken is the most widely consumed meat in the world. With climate change comes the risk of heat stress, the main concern for the poultry industry in hotter regions without cooled housing. (In 2012, a heat wave killed an estimated 500,000 laying hens in uncooled sheds in Brazil.) In the US, most chickens are raised indoors where the temperature can generally be regulated, but hurricanes and other extreme weather events pose risks.

As temperatures increase some producers might move their operations north to cooler climes.

They are also exploring ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Waste from chicken farming can provide a nutrient-rich fertilizer for crops or be anaerobically digested to produce biogas for generating electricity. And breeders are working on the “naked neck” trait to keep birds cool. 

Main Courses: Fish and Other Aquatic Foods

Fish and Other Aquatic Foods

Oceans, rivers, and lakes provide us with a wide variety of fish and shellfish, which are some of the most widely eaten foods in the world. Unfortunately, fish stocks have been steadily declining. Fish farming, however, is filling the gap and supplying over 45% of the world’s fish supply.

The warming and acidification of the oceans is altering the growth, reproduction, and survival of many species. Phytoplankton—tiny plants, the foundation of the food chain—are declining in some regions, with profound implications for life in the oceans. Ice in the Bering Sea is also retreating, which is a problem for young pollock that feed on algae growing on the underside of the ice: no ice, no algae. The overall stock of pollock, a business worth $1 billion annually, is threatened. And scientists have determined that acidification interferes with the building of shells by oysters and many other species—another canary in the coal mine.

The top priority is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to manage wild fisheries wisely and bolster aquaculture production. Some researchers suggest that improved fishery management could actually lead to higher yields and profits in the future.

Another option may be to shift to squid, octopus, and cuttlefish—which are booming in the changing oceans. As other seafood becomes more expensive, or supplies decrease, we may find these on the menu more often. 

Grains, Starches, and Other Sides: Rice

Rice

Rice is grown in over 113 countries and the most important food for over three billion people worldwide. China and India produce about half of the globe’s milled rice. The US has some of the highest yields in the world but accounts for only about 2% of global production.

Rice is typically grown in water-filled paddies and is labor intensive. Water scarcity and increased temperatures due to climate change may cause yields in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam to drop 50% by 2100. In coastal regions, saltwater intrusion as sea levels rise threatens rice production. Droughts affect rice production and future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are expected to diminish B vitamins in rice by 17-30%, which will would affect the health of millions of poor in the major rice-consuming countries.

Around the world researchers are breeding rice varieties for resilience to drought, salinity, and high temperatures. For millions of people on the planet, rice is life, and it is increasingly at risk.

Grains, Starches, and Other Sides: Potatoes

Potatoes

Potatoes, whether mashed with butter, baked, stuffed, or boiled, are a favorite in the US and beyond. Globally, they are a staple for 1.3 billion people. China is the top producer, India is second, and the US, fifth.

Rising nighttime temperatures, which cause a decline in tuber growth, threaten global potato production. In 2018 severe heat and drought hit spuds hard in England and Wales, and resulted in the fourth smallest harvest since 1960. Researchers estimate up to 95% of potato-growing land currently dependent on rainfall could become unsuitable for production by 2050 because of increasingly dry conditions.

In the US, potato yields in eastern Washington State could drop as much as 22% by 2080 owing to rising temperatures. Yields could drop elsewhere around the world unless heat-resistant potato varieties are developed and adopted. In general, increasing carbon dioxide levels will help offset the negative impacts of climate change until midcentury. Thereafter, increasing temperatures will override this positive impact.

Keeping potatoes on the menu means growers may move production to where temperatures may be more favorable. To maintain current production, experts must breed potato varieties resilient to the new conditions.

Grains, Starches, and Other Sides: Wheat

Wheat

Wheat is the second most important grain in the world and eaten in nearly every country: chapati and naan in India, pot stickers in Japan, and alfajores for dessert in Peru. Wheat flour goes into bread, pasta, and flour tortillas, as well as beer, whiskey, and some vodkas.

Researchers predict global wheat production will decrease by 6% for every 1.8ºF of warming. And if we don’t curb climate change, up to 60% of the current global wheat-growing areas could be affected by simultaneous severe water scarcity by the end of the century. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are also predicted to result in less protein, zinc, and iron in wheat.

Countries are looking into selective breeding and other adaptive measures to protect grain crops. For example, in China farmers are adjusting their cropping patterns by shifting planting time to avoid extreme heat and drought and using water-saving techniques and irrigation. In Australia research has shown that by planting slower-growing wheat, farmers can adapt to a longer growing season. And ongoing breeding programs will strive to maintain the nutritional quality of wheat.

Desserts: Chocolate

Chocolate

Chocolate is made from the seeds of cacao trees, which grow in a thin band near the equator. Roughly two million farmers in the small West African cocoa belt grow about 70% of the world’s cacao. However, annual rainfall in West Africa is predicted to decrease up to 30% over the second half of the century. Other cacao-growing regions face increasing risks as well.

To help keep chocolate on the menu, some production could be moved to higher and cooler elevations where feasible. Likewise, farmers can protect cacao trees by planting bananas, plantains, and other crops that provide shade, reducing heat stress on cacao trees and bringing in additional cash.

Making the cacao plant more resilient is critically important and the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre in England and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica are working on it. Together they are creating a cacao plant with increased disease resistance and yield that also produces high-quality, good-tasting chocolate.

In 2000, chocolate industry members created the World Cocoa Foundation, which focuses on sustainability, including training farmers and increasing their resilience to climate change. In 2017, Mars announced an ambitious greenhouse-gas emission reduction goal and committed $1 billion to the effort. 

Desserts: Dairy

Dairy

The US is the world’s leader in the production of cow’s milk. And it’s not just fresh milk—the dairy industry churns out butter, dry milk powders, evaporated and condensed milk, yogurt, hundreds of cheeses—and, of course, ice cream. Of which, people in the United States consume over 23 pounds a year, each.

Unfortunately, hot cows produce less milk but farmers strive to keep them cool with misters and sprinklers and shade in the pasture. Experts are also breeding for more heat-tolerant animals. Many US dairy farmers may also struggle with water shortages for cows and the crops needed to feed them.

Dairy cattle release the greenhouse gas methane, and farmers can help minimize it by providing high-quality feed. Someday they might add a product to their feed that reduces methane more than 20%. The addition of small amounts of seaweed or garlic also has potential. As little as 1% seaweed could reduce methane production by 50%.

On larger dairies, anaerobic digesters can convert animal wastes into biogas for on-farm heating or production of electricity. In 2018, anaerobic digester systems on US dairy, cattle, swine, and poultry farms generated the equivalent of about 1.1 million megawatt-hours of electricity. 

Desserts: Vanilla

Vanilla

Natural vanilla is an exotic and highly valuable spice with over two hundred compounds that contribute to its aroma and flavor. The vanilla beans are the fruits of a climbing orchid that thrives in Madagascar and Indonesia. Globally, the export value of vanilla is about $1.3 billion and demand will likely increase, given consumer preference for more natural foods.

About 99% of “vanilla” flavoring is synthetic and much cheaper than natural vanilla, which is very labor intensive to produce. Both types flavor beverages, chocolate, and of course many desserts. Vanilla is also used in soaps, perfumes, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and candles.

A changing climate poses challenges for natural vanilla. It is grown mainly by smallholder farmers who are vulnerable to extreme weather, pests, diseases, and increasing prices for agricultural inputs. For example, much of Madagascar’s crop was devastated by Cyclone Enawo in 2017—almost 30% of the annual global supply. Prices increased by nearly 350%.

In the face of a changing climate, Indonesia and Madagascar need adaptive measures to maintain vanilla production. Several companies have partnered to teach vanilla farmers more sustainable production methods. One is agroforestry, where trees and shrubs are grown with vanilla crops—a practice that helps maintain soil moisture, prevent erosion, and minimize temperature extremes.

Desserts: Coffee

Coffee

Drinking coffee is a multisensory experience, wakes us up, keeps us healthy, and is an important social lubricant. The US is the largest importer of coffee and over 60% of the population drinks it each day.

All coffee is grown in the sunny equatorial “coffee belt”; 40% comes from Brazil and 20% from Vietnam. Farmers need to pick coffee “cherries” once or twice a year and dry them in the sun for several weeks, turning them several times a day. Workers subsequently polish, grade, and sort the beans for distribution worldwide.

Coffee is sensitive to even small increases in temperature, which can reduce yield and affect its flavor and aroma. Warming temperatures could soon reduce coffee production by over 30% in parts of Mexico and some predict that the world’s coffee production area could be cut in half by 2050.

To remain resilient, coffee growers are planting shade trees among coffee trees to buffer temperature extremes, choosing more pest- and heat-tolerant varieties, and relocating upslope where feasible. Some farmers are switching to cacao, which thrives in the warmer weather.

Starbucks has committed to helping coffee growers adopt more resilient farming practices, and cooperatives such as Coopedota in Costa Rica are seeking ways to reduce their impact on the climate. They have cut emissions for drying coffee by 90% and electricity use by 40%. 

Read the whole story! Next up: Stewardship of the Land…