11 Foods That Are Already Being Impacted by the Climate Crisis
Food is an entrenched part of any culture. In America, we associate peaches with Georgia and shellfish with New England; we go to Napa for wine tasting, and sing songs about the heartland’s amber waves of grain. But in a few short decades, rising sea levels and changing temperatures could transform where and how we harvest our food.
We’re already seeing changes. Fruit trees are struggling to bloom after warmer winters; cranberries are being scalded by heat in the bogs they’ve grown in for centuries; in Asia, rice crops are being flooded with saltwater. And as the ocean becomes warmer and more acidic, the sea life we depend on is either moving to different waters or being decimated.
In many cases, these changes mean that the foods that are part of a region’s identity — Vermont’s maple syrup or Colombia’s coffee — will have to migrate as their ideal climate shifts, often further north. “Napa Valley pretty much ends up in Canada not too long from now,” says Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.
And it’s not just specialty foods. Rising temperatures are making it harder to produce staple grains across the globe — slashing yields, wiping out crops in droughts, even making these essential grains less nutritious. In developed countries like the U.S., we likely won’t stop eating as much corn or wheat; we’ll just start cultivating more land — increasing the already enormous environmental impact of the agriculture industry. “The demand for food is so powerful, it’s the fundamental thing that people need to buy. They will find a way to buy it,” says Keith Wiebe of the International Food Policy Research Institute.
But it also means prices will go up — which could be devastating for nations that are already facing widespread hunger. “For people in poorer countries, where they spend half of their total expenditures on food, and half of those expenditures are on just the basics — maize meal or cassava flour — even a small change in something like that has a huge impact,” says Wiebe. “They’re already scraping by, and trading off between food and school books and health care.”
The key is learning how to adapt. Researchers are breeding climate-resistant crops — building DNA libraries and reviving old, wild strains — and working to insure farmers financially against increasingly variable growing seasons.
“It’s a race between innovation and the impacts of climate,” says Wiebe. “The entire history of agriculture is based on experience with relatively stable temperatures. And we’re going to move beyond that in the next decades.”
Here are 11 foods, from beloved regional favorites to essential staples, that are already being affected by climate change in their cultivation methods, quality, and survival.
Accounting for 20 percent of all calories consumed by people — and 100 percent of all comfort food — wheat is threatened by drought and rising carbon-dioxide levels. Researchers project that even if we stop global temperatures from rising 2 C, the wheat-growing areas affected by drought will double in the next 20 to 50 years. Rising CO2 levels may offset some of that by fueling photosynthesis and increasing yield, but a recent study suggested rising CO2 will also strip significant amounts of nutrients from wheat and other plants like barley, potatoes, and rice.
Small open-water fish like sardines, herring, and anchovies are among the most “climate friendly” fish to catch, requiring by far the least amount of boat fuel to gather. But rising ocean temperatures are deadly to sardine larvae, and the species depends on plankton for food, which is becoming scarcer in some parts of the world due to increasingly variable wind patterns. An 87 percent collapse of sardine fisheries in the Southern Caribbean over the course of a decade was attributed largely to climate change, with overfishing contributing as well. At the same time, research suggests sardine populations in the Pacific Ocean will travel north to cooler waters over the next 60 years, reducing stock in current California fishing ports by 20 to 50 percent.
California grows about 80 percent of the world’s almonds. “That crop takes a ridiculously lot of water to grow,” says Goddard. “As California’s facing water shortages, this is going to be a problem.” In addition to rainfall, California farmers rely on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains flowing into the state’s irrigation canals. As less snow accumulates and melts earlier because of climate change, thirsty crops like almonds are likely to be especially affected by the late-season water shortage. Researchers are studying whether the almond industry could eventually shift north into Oregon and Washington, which by 2050 may be warm enough to support the crop.
About 10,000 years ago, we started domesticating chickpeas. It helped make the legume what it is today — the primary source of protein for some 20 percent of the world. But it also robbed it of its genetic diversity, which has made it harder for the plant to adapt to climate change. It’s particularly vulnerable to drought, which can decimate half of a crop, and disease, which can wipe a crop out entirely. To keep chickpeas thriving, researchers have collected seeds and DNA from the domesticated chickpea’s heartier, wild counterparts in Turkey and Kurdistan, hoping to breed a plant that is more resistant to drought, extreme heat, and pests.
Considered the canary in the agricultural coal mine, wine grapes require hyperspecific climates to produce wines with sugar, acid, and tannins balanced exactly right. Already, growers are entering regions that were once too cold for the crop and seeking higher altitudes for more consistent temperatures. Drought, floods, hail, fires, and unpredictable rains and freezes threaten to decimate yields. In 2020, smoke damage from the worst wildfire season in modern California history ruined 13 percent of the state’s wine-grape crop. A recent study predicted that if global temperatures rise by 2 C, suitable wine-grape regions could shrink by as much as 56 percent by the end of the century. Diversifying varietals could offset some of that loss, but that will mean the end of generations of growing certain grapes in certain regions in favor of those more suited to climate change.
Indigenous peoples in the Northeast United States have used this winter-hardy crop in their foods and medicines for thousands of years. In Massachusetts, which produces about a quarter of the country’s cranberry crop, the industry is worth $1 billion and employs 7,000 farmers. But the plants, many of which are more than 100 years old, grow in ancient bogs that fall prey to erratic rainfall and drought. And in heat waves, cranberries can suffer from a condition called “scald,” where the fruit cooks on the vine because it can’t cool itself.
Baby shellfish like oysters and scallops start building their shells when they’re somewhere between the size of a speck of dust and a lentil, filtering calcium and carbonate from ocean waters to construct their protective layers. But as the oceans’ acidity increases due to the rising CO2 levels, the number of carbonate ions in the water declines. Unable to build their shells, the shellfish die or grow more slowly, making them more vulnerable to predators. One report estimated that with scallops, ocean acidification could reduce the population by as much as 50 percent in just a few decades.
In winter, when hardy fruit trees like peaches and cherries are dormant, they need to experience a certain number of “chilling hours” — where temperatures remain between freezing and 45 degrees — for the fruit to reliably form. A study found that between 1950 and 2000, yearly chilling hours decreased by as much as 30 percent in some parts of California. But there is hope: In 2020, the USDA released three new peach varieties bred to survive shorter, warmer winters.
Corn is the most vital crop in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and it’s the largest grown in the United States. But the grain is sensitive to rising temperatures and dwindling rainfall, so healthy crops can be taken out in one fell swoop by an ill-timed drought. “Even in developed countries like the United States or Brazil, you have these wonderful crops, growing great, and then right when the crop starts to flower—which is critical—you get a drought, and the whole crop goes down the drain,” says Walter Baethgen, senior research scientist for the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. Tith the constant threat that crops could be wiped out at any moment, it could become financially impossible for small corn farmers to sustain their farms. And even when crops survive, the changing climate is expected to reduce corn’s growth rate: a global temperature rise of just 1 degree Celsius would slow the rate by 7 percent.
Higher temperatures, more intense rain, and persistent humidity have made coffee plantations hospitable hosts for the “coffee leaf rust” fungus. Dusting coffee leaves with rust-colored spores, they feed off the plant, spreading from tree to tree and making it impossible for the plants to photosynthesize or produce the prized coffee berries. From 2012 to 2017, coffee rust forced almost 2 million farmers off their land. One study estimates that because of global warming, we could lose 50 percent of the land suitable to grow coffee by 2050.
Rice production is fundamental to global food security: It’s a staple for more than half the world’s population, nearly a billion of whom suffer from chronic hunger. The crop thrives in wetlands — making it especially susceptible to droughts or unpredictable rainfall. But the biggest enemy may be rising sea levels. In Bangladesh, coastal flooding is literally salting the earth, making it impossible to cultivate the rice fields. According to one study, 200,000 coastal farmers will likely be forced out by rising tides in the next 120 years. Wealthier farmers have begun farming shrimp where they once grew rice, but 80 percent of the world’s rice is produced by small-scale farmers without the resources to make that change. Instead, many are expected to migrate inland, where there’s good news: researchers are isolating breeds that are drought- and flood-tolerant, to adapt to changing weather patterns.