Many know that our food choices have immense impacts on the environment. According to the U.S. EPA, agriculture contributed 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, with other estimates much higher (1). Because of this, if we want to reduce our personal footprints, we must carefully choose what we eat based on relative emissions. Instead of focusing on the impacts of our food choices on the environment, I am going to detail the impacts of climate change on 3 of my favorite foods. Climate change has already changed how we eat and will continue to do so.
An article on Eater titled “What Climate Change Could Mean for the Dairy Industry” provides a detailed look at dairy in the nomadic, herder communities of Mongolia, where winters bring deadly cold but average temperatures still climb, causing many water bodies to dry (2). This decrease to cattle stocks, traditional used largely for cheese, has reduced Mongolian supply dramatically. This, the author claims, may act as an extreme example of what could occur in the United States cheese market. Experts on dairy farming are pushing for grass-fed, organic dairy farming — a regenerative practice that helps the soil rather than extracting from it. Part of the reason for this common switch to grass-fed dairy cows is because of the high carbon footprint of cheese, requiring farmers to work towards better practices. This, though, leads to higher prices, but many are willing to pay.
You may have noticed how expensive vanilla has gotten in the last few years. At around $300/lb, it is the 2nd most expensive spice after saffron and more expensive than silver (3)! Luckily, our taste buds can barely sense the difference between genuine vanilla and synthetic vanillin, a much cheaper substitute used in foods like ice cream and baked goods (4). Unfortunately, us traditionalists who want to keep using pure vanilla will continue to have to shell out significant money. Vanilla is an extremely resource and labor intensive and vulnerable crop. It requires hand-pollination and takes a very long time to reach harvestable form. Furthermore, it takes around 6 pounds of green vanilla bean to make 1 pound of recognizable vanilla. Vanilla crops are primarily grown in Madagascar, an area highly susceptible to intense weather events that can wipe out large amounts of the crop at once. As we know, intense weather events are becoming more common with climate change, so we may have to continue to adapt away from pure vanilla.
Peaches, just like many fruit trees, need a cold and long enough winter (5). Without that, they do not know when to bloom, and thus cannot be harvested. California, specifically the Central Valley, is the largest US producer of peaches, and the valley will see only 10% of the chilling required for peach trees as a result of climate change. Beyond this, even if peach trees adapt to need less chill time, their yields also drop with summers that are too hot. This change in seasonality may also mean that they no longer align with the timeline of pollinators.
We can all do our part to eat in a way that reduces our carbon footprint and other environmental hazards. Some ways to do this, of varying degrees, are to cut out meat once in a while, go vegan, or choose organic and responsibly grown foods. These educated choices, by reducing impacts from current trend climate change, may even allow us to eat the foods we want far into the future (though sometimes in moderation).