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Will Climate Change Alter What the World Eats?


Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Food For Thought

Food is not only a source of energy but something that defines us. It is part of our culture, history, and even the keeper of our mindset, our attitudes. For example, when one consumes carbohydrates, the mood improves because a nonessential amino acid called Tryptophan is produced and the happiness hormone, serotonin is synthesized in our body. Certain food that is available in certain geographies helps us maintain health and well-being. A herder living in the Himalayas might be drinking Yak butter tea frequently not only for its taste but for the heat and body strength that it provides. In a discussion on climate change, this is why we cannot ignore the accompanying changes that enter into our food culture.

There are certain food crops that have already shown signs of getting affected by climate change. If their production declines, we may have to abandon even some of our very mundane food habits. More importantly, the ensuing high prices of these food items would reduce our access to them and affect our daily intake of nutrition. Naturally, certain food items might also become less expensive as warmer climates will favor their production. Here are some examples of what the changes might look like.

Specific Case Studies: Impact on Individual Food Choices

Oysters: Oyster shell formation is getting affected by global warming. The problem oyster farming faces now is the ocean acidification caused by global warming and the oyster farmers around the world have observed that their oyster larvae metamorphosis process (of growing protective shell encasement) is considerably slowing down. To avert this problem, farmers are now keeping seawater in a buffer zone in order to cool it down, and only then they can introduce it to the oyster hatcheries. Obviously, this is just a temporary solution and what will happen to the oysters when the seawater gets warmer in the future is what worries them.

Fish: Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that the harvest of the world’s all-important fish species will come down by 40% owing to global warming. It is alarming to think about how the price of fish will escalate in such a situation and whether this food item will still be on our platter.

Wheat: In 2016, The Washington Post cited a new study suggesting that if global temperature increases just by one degree, wheat production will go down by 4.1-6.4 percent. A reduction of 5 percent in terms of quantity is equivalent to 35 million tons of wheat per year. Wheat is consumed by 2.5 billion people around the world. How the world will cope with such a drastic dip in the production of one of its staple diet crops is the big question.

Arabica Coffee: Arabica is the coffee variety that contributes to 80% of the world’s coffee production output. A study carried out by Tavares et al (2018) in Brazil, the largest producer of Arabica coffee in the world, indicated that in the next 80 years or so, Brazil’s coffee production area will get reduced by 60% owing to dry seasons induced by global warming. In such a scenario, what will be the price of Arabica coffee and how many on earth could afford it is anyone’s guess.

Avocado: Production of avocado is anticipated to go down by 40% owing to global warming and ensuing drought. We may see this happen in the next 30 years. Avocado-flavored summer salads, pies, Guacamole, and Fettuccine could become history in the menu of the common man.

Season of Change

The crops that are easily affected by climate change also include items belonging to the world's staple food. Rice, fruits, and potato are examples.

Fruits and nuts growing in temperate regions: Fruits like apple and nuts like cashew need a natural winter dip in temperature to induce fruit set. Global warming is affecting this winter chill. The result is a diminished yield which will escalate the prices, obviously.

Hop: What adds the distinct flavor to beer are the flowers of the hop plant. The bad news is that climate change-induced drought in the growing areas is affecting the quantity and quality of the hop produced.

Rice: Rice, the staple diet of half of the world’s population, is also affected by global warming. Reduction in the general availability of water might cause a fall in rice yield and productivity. The waterlogged rice fields are found to emit methane gas into the atmosphere which contributes to global warming. Hence there will be more pressure from the international community upon the rice-producing countries, which are mostly developing nations, to put a limit on their area of rice cultivation. This also will have a negative impact on the production output.

Chocolate: The major cocoa-growers of the world, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are facing drought in cocoa cultivation areas. By 2050, it is predicted, cocoa cultivation will have to be shifted to higher altitudes as the temperature in lower altitude regions increase.

Potato: Potato is threatened by climate change because many wild relatives of potato plants will perish under higher temperatures. As a result, the pests that go attacking wild potato plants will come in search of cultivated plants. It is the wild varieties of any crop that are used in the research of developing pest, disease, and drought-resistant new varieties. When wild varieties are gone, such research will suffer a huge setback.

Drying of Rice In Africa

Food That We May Find on Our Plates

Thyme: In response to a warmer climate, the thyme variety that generates more phenolic compounds in its plant body, is becoming prevalent than it used to be. It seems thyme will survive climate change.

Salmon: Pink salmon and Sockeye salmon seemed to have decided they will migrate earlier than usual for breeding so that they can survive warmer waters in their natural habitat.

Halophytes: Halophytes are plants that can grow in saltwater. It is a known fact sea levels will rise as the earth warms up. The result will be many freshwater bodies turning saline. In this context, humanity will require to focus attention on edible halophytes to meet the food requirements. Salt-tolerant varieties of different vegetables are also being developed. Edible saltwater plants like sea beans, sea aster, agretti, and sea kale could become a part of our daily menu once the earth warms a bit more.

Quinoa: Quinoa is a grain of South America that is adaptable to a wide variety of climates and soils. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has recognized quinoa as a staple crop substitute.


Quinoa Harvest in South America

Food of The Future

It looks like we are going to fall back on the long-neglected indigenous crops once the world heats up. Of course they do not lack in nutrition but their mass production to meet the food needs of the planet will be a challenge for the farmers as well as agricultural scientists. Imagine a breakfast or dinner with no apples, coffee or wheat products but with quinoa and sea vegetables! Sure we are on to some incredible palate adjustment.


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© 2018 Deepa

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