At this point, we’ve all just made peace with the idea that climate change will devastate the Earth, right? As far as food is concerned, it is now easy to imagine a world without coffee, wine, bananas, avocados, chocolate, crops whose mere presence in the world’s food supply is threatened by a warming planet. But some climate-change experts stress the fact that complete extinction is less of a threat than the ways smaller adjustments will affect our food chain. “The unpredictable ways in which our food system takes up shocks and stressors is the really compelling story here and it is going hugely underreported,” says Ed Carr, director of Clark University’s international development, community, and environment department. “The entire global food system is a nightmare on the horizon.”
Carr warns that our modern food system is interconnected in ways we will fail to truly grasp until “a single shock or stress impacts the system.” He says, “Add multiple shocks, or even several moving parts, and that uncertainty compounds.”
Take, for example, that iconic brunch drink, the Bloody Mary. It is often called the world’s most complex cocktail due to the sheer amount of stuff that’s in it. Even a normal Bloody Mary — one that isn’t garnished with, say, raw oysters or an entire fried chicken — contains far more ingredients than you might think (Worcestershire sauce alone contains over a dozen separate components), any one of which could be a victim of climate change in the future. “You look at the glass and go, ‘A lot is going on in there,’” explains Michael Hoffmann, who runs the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions. “But if you take the pieces one by one, you start realizing tomorrow’s Bloody Mary is going to taste very different.”
How different? Scientists can’t definitively say how flavors will shift. It depends on whether the environmental stressors manifest as rainfall declines, or perhaps a long-forgotten disease emerging from melted Arctic ice. (That really happened, btw.) What the experts we talked to can agree on is that the ingredients that make up your favorite Bloody are in for a rough few decades of change. And, yes, the loss or change of boozy tomato juice is — in the grand scheme of things — admittedly trivial, yet examining each ingredient of this classic hangover cure is also, ahem, a surprisingly eye-opening way to get a grasp on the ways in which our changing climate could affect our food supply. Here’s how it looks:
The one constant across all Bloody Mary recipes is also the most susceptible to change. Nutrient depletion has wracked tomatoes for years; the standard, garden-variety version of the fruit continues to leach vital nutrients like vitamin C and calcium. According to one influential report, the atmosphere itself may be to blame due to rising CO2 levels. Scientists have found that higher temperatures increase the odds of plants getting a disease called blossom-end rot, which make them ripen more slowly, decreases their fruit size, and reduces natural sweetness. Once temperatures soar above 90 degrees, just kiss tomatoes good-bye entirely: The plant won’t blossom in such heat. It will sacrifice flowers to conserve moisture, and fruit that’s already on the vine will, for example, turn an unappetizing shade of yellow.
Vodka can be made from a variety of different ingredients, but the outlook is pretty bleak for all of them. Researchers predict climate change will have a “profound effect” on potatoes in warm climates like India, and in the next two decades, global yields are predicted to drop by as much as 32 percent. By 2060, it’s possible Bolivia will be the only place on Earth that doesn’t have to drastically change its farming practices to maintain the current yield. The U.N. also warns that the biodiversity of potatoes is under global threat.
High rollers, meanwhile, might want to know that Grey Goose is made with wheat instead of potatoes, but those grains are grown in Picardy, a region in northern France where a new study predicts precipitation shortages and hotter weather will shrink yields 21 percent by century’s end. And Tito’s, America’s top-selling spirits brand, is distilled from corn. Carr points out that the Corn Belt is in trouble: Models predict a 6 degree temperature increase for parts of the midwest over the next half century and, in two generations, Canada may produce much of the corn that America does now.
Rising sea levels are quite literally drowning Tabasco, the crucial Bloody Mary ingredient produced by Louisiana’s McIlhenny family: The company is headquartered on Avery Island, Louisiana, a salt dome by the Gulf of Mexico that’s headed underwater, along with one of the country’s largest salt mines. The peppers used to make the sauce are actually grown in Central and South America, but that only ensures supply, not quality. Research shows warming temperatures have a metaphorically apt consequence for chiles: Heat stress on the plant increases capsaicin, which means the peppers get hotter in their own way. Droughts have already caused shortages of some other pepper varieties, like of the chiltepin in northern Mexico, and others as traced in the excellent 2011 book Chasing Chiles.
Lemon production is concentrated in coastal regions with similar climates, and the crop is sensitive to dramatic temperature changes — fruits that ripen too quickly become bitter. They’re also vulnerable to disease and hurricanes, which are becoming more frequent and severe, and that in turn translates to price volatility. They’re also practically a monoculture crop; the more similar they are, the more susceptible the entire supply becomes to any unexpected “shock,” which would mean a serious citrus decline.
The classic condiment requires fermented anchovies which, like all fish, are in grave danger of going extinct. (The most dire warnings predict edible fish could disappear as soon 2048.) Already, the anchovy population off of California’s coast has seen total collapse: It dropped from 1 million tons in 2009 to just 15,000 tons in 2011.
A majority of North America’s horseradish production comes from just two counties in southern Illinois. A sole environmental stressor to the area could decimate supplies of the pungent root. In fact, it almost happened once, in 2002, when a fungus nearly wiped it out. It’s not like farmers could just start planting it somewhere else. As the Washington Post explained at the time, “There are no seeds for root crops. Instead, offshoots the size of carrots are separated from the thick part of the horseradish by hand, then replanted in the loose, rich soil of this stretch of Mississippi River bottom land.”
Consider different types of water, and the individual traits they confer on drinks. As Hoffmann says, “You have to think about that in addition to the Tabasco, tomatoes, vodka, and all of that.” And, surprise, climate change is throwing a real wrench in the nutrients found in water, which is also a reliable conduit for pollutants, second only to air. As the EPA warns, bad things are in store for the “amount, timing, form, and intensity” of rainfall, and those problems will inevitably threaten our water resources. Algal blooms now routinely taint our lakes and rivers; and a recent study in Science points out extreme storms will wash in larger quantities of nitrogen — possibly 20 percent more, by the end of the century. Freak downpours also create runoff that flows into our water supplies, after picking up pollutants, animal waste, sediment, and other trash along the way.
A few dashes of salt and fresh-ground black pepper are necessary finishing touches for any great Bloody, but that pepper could be a problem. Vietnam and India are the biggest producers, and output in both areas is at its maximum. In fact, production bases are shrinking. It’s a rain-fed crop, and researchers call the warm, dry recent years a cause of “great concern,” particularly because there’s a fear the shifting weather could bring in new pests and pathogens, too.
This is the one spot of good news, if you want to call it that. It turns out everyone’s least favorite vegetable is surprisingly resilient. U.K. scientists investigated greenhouse gas effects on the vegetable last year, and according to their data, “There was no effect of increased temperature on aboveground celery yield.” Um, great?
Celery’s apparent invincibility notwithstanding, experts are clear about the fact that shocks and stressors have already affected these ingredients (and plenty of others) in meaningful ways — and the issues that we already understand are actually the least troubling. “I’m not worried about what I know will happen — we can plan for that,” Carr says. “I worry about what I don’t know.” He adds that the sheer number of possible threats is simply overwhelming, and all it takes is bad luck. “It could be one, or three, or a million. They just have to happen at the wrong time and the wrong place, and we have a mess on our hands.”