Climate's Changing Diets
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Global warming is coming for your taste buds. Here’s how.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
Plant-based burgers or a paleo diet? Most of our conversations on the intersection of food and global warming focus on how what we eat is impacting the climate. We know red meat is bad, and vegetables are better. Sustainably grown crops are healthier for both us and the environment than those produced through exploitative and outdated — yet still dominant — industrial agriculture practices.
But there are a couple of key pieces in the puzzle that we’re missing. Yes, what we eat changes the climate. But the changing climate is in turn going to determine which of our food staples and favorite snacks survive some decades from now, and the alternatives we’ll need to turn to as a species. And the fixes we find in the meantime will shape how we adapt to these changes that’ll hit our kitchens and taste buds.
OZY’s latest original series, Climate’s Changing Diets, gives you a taste of the food we love that’s poised to disappear because of climate change, and the new crops and skills scientists and communities are embracing to stave off the potential starvation we could otherwise face. We’ll meet the researchers helping us understand which fine-dining delicacies will still be around in the future, and those who are trying to use climate change to actually increase food production. And we’ll introduce you to products and tools that help you, as individuals, do your bit in mitigating the impact of food on climate change.
The global demand for food is expected to rise by 70 percent by 2050. But losses in yields of corn, wheat and rice — which together are responsible for 60 percent of our caloric intake as humans — are expected to increase sharply, because of climate change. That’s making scientists across the globe turn to ancient, climate-resistant grains as the answer to the massive food shortages the world will face in coming decades. Grains like teff, fonio, pearl, finger millet and sorghum were once discarded in favor of crops that are easier to grow at industrial scales. But they can withstand droughts and warmer climates while also producing more nutritional value than corn or wheat. And today, their genes can be tweaked so that they grow faster. They could be the superheroes that save us.
Jane Langdale is far from a climate change denier. But the professor of plant development at the University of Oxford is leading a global effort to try and use rising levels of carbon dioxide to mankind’s advantage — by tweaking the genome of rice, one of the two most-consumed cereals in the world, to let it more efficiently convert CO2 into a nutrient that can help increase rice yields. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are responsible for global warming (which in turn causes unpredictable weather patterns) and reduced water levels, affecting food production. But there’s another, less evil side to carbon dioxide: Plants consume carbon dioxide just as humans and animals need oxygen. And more carbon dioxide can in theory yield greater plant production, which could partly offset food shortages caused by climate change.
Turkey’s Black Sea coast produces 70 percent of the world’s hazelnut crop. But growing instances of unseasonal storms and steadily rising temperatures are beginning to destroy tens of thousands of tons of harvested hazelnuts, underscoring a major climate change-induced challenge that’s threatening an industry estimated to be worth $9.5 billion by 2026. That’s bad news for global confectionery brands such as Ferrero (which owns Nutella), Lindt and M&M’s that depend on Turkey’s hazelnuts for chocolate products, and for the millions of consumers who love the flavor. The imminent crisis is forcing some companies to adapt, either by embracing more ecologically friendly practices or by diversifying the source of the hazelnuts to depend less on Turkey. But will they manage to do so fast enough?
As a child, Sonya Dyhrman would explore tidal pools with her grandfather on the coast near her home in Tacoma, Washington. Now, decades later, she’s turning that lifelong fascination with the ocean into pioneering work that could help us understand just how vulnerable our food chain is to climate change. Most of the focus on the correlation between food and global warming has centered on what we consume: meat or plants, carbs or protein. She’s going under the sea to look at the impact of climate change on the base of the food chain: marine microbes that are the heartbeat of the ocean ecosystem, the food that zooplankton and small fish consume. Take them out of the equation and we wouldn’t have seafood.
The chocolate industry in the U.K. alone generates 2.3 tons of carbon emissions annually — the equivalent of what the city of El Paso, Texas, produces in total. Cocoatrait, designed and produced by chocolatiers in Chennai, India, is trying to change that, one bar at a time. They’re using technology and natural ingredients to let you consume chocolate while knowing you’re not hurting the environment one bit. Cocoatrait bars use cocoa husk paper packaging and biodegradable wrappers that come with mandala art and habit trackers to encourage users to reuse them. The chocolate is made using unrefined sugar and other natural ingredients. Ultra-thin packaging ensures the bar occupies the least amount of space possible on shop shelves, and is lighter to transport. With this chocolate, the feel-good aftertaste is as great as the actual flavors.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY Author Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi