Food Culture and Climate Change

Climate change - it is the buzzword of our century. Politicians argue about its existence, scientists argue about its severity, and businessmen argue about the costs associated with both tackling it and not.


Climate change has the potential to affect human society on a grand scale, everything from how we travel to what we eat.


In the most likely of cases, we will learn to adapt, just as our ancestors did during the last ice age. Our adaptability is the key to our survival but it is not alarmist to also note that such adaptations might come at a great human cost.


How many people on our planet go hungry every day, in a time when crops are plentiful and when we feel no shame in throwing out a full 1/3 of all food produced?


What will happen when climate change starts causing serious stress to our food sources?


When food sources become unreliable, how many more will be left hungry?


Already the change in temperatures globally is having an effect on food sources through unpredictable weather patterns.


Heat waves in normally tepid climates can kill off delicate crops, unseasonably late frosts often destroy sprouting plants, and stronger than usual storms - from hurricanes to tornados - can ruin a whole season’s harvest.


When farmers are unable to reliably plant, grow, and harvest, food shortages become unavoidable.


Changing weather patterns can have a serious effect on food sources


In the low farming regions of Southeast Asia, sea-level rise has caused flooding and a long term effect on the salinity of local water sources.


The result is that rice no longer grows in vast stretches of local farmland, poisoned by the high levels of salt in the water and soil. Rice farmers are adapting, switching to shrimp farming in many cases, but the loss of such an important staple crop is having a serious effect on the local community.


Regions of the world once known for their perfect growing climates, plentiful rain, and rich soil are experiencing droughts more severe than ever before in recorded history.


Water rights and disputes are pitting farmer against farmer, rancher against rancher. We are having to change what we eat as food prices on crops, especially those requiring large quantities of water to grow, skyrocket.


There may come a time when there simply isn't enough water and we will either watch these regions shrivel up and die or we will have to start getting seriously more selective on what we grow - not based on what we like to eat but on what grows well in drought.


In other regions of the world, climate change seems to be having an almost positive effect.


Farmers in Greenland, who in the past were lucky to harvest a few potatoes and turnips out of each summer’s short growing season are now enjoying longer, warmer summers. Unheard of in the past, you can now find locally grown strawberries, tomatoes, and even lettuce.


Warming temperatures are having both positive and negative effects on Nordic food


That’s not the whole story though.


At the same time as Greenland farmers celebrate their first harvests of strawberries, many of the indigenous communities of the far north are suffering through substantial changes to their traditional food culture.


Ice melt has drastically changed the way indigenous tribes hunt and fish, affecting a large part of their traditional diets. Harvest seasons are coming too early and with the thawing permafrost, gathered vegetables, grains, and seeds are spoiling sooner as the traditional preservation method - ice cellars - become impossible.


Add to that the opening of the Arctic to commercial interests - with newly ice-free shipping lanes and access to new oil drilling locations - and even in the far North, a warmer, longer summer doesn't look so good.


As our climate becomes more unpredictable, as droughts, floods, and famines drive people from their homes, we will also begin to see a growing humanitarian crisis - climate refugees.


Just as people flee war and violence, so will people flee starvation and hunger.


Even if regions of the world are able to adapt well to the changing climate, they will inevitably be faced with the desperate migration of people from less fortunate regions.


How we handle and care for our starving neighbors will likely be the measure by which our society is judged by future generations.


Despite what some politicians might hope to believe, climate change is happening, and as we speak it is subtly changing food cultures around the globe.


At this point, damage has already been done and will continue to ripple through the food system, from how we farm to what we eat. There is little we can do to fix the damage already done and even if we, as a world, take serious action on climate change now, some changes are simply too far along to reverse at this point.


Climate refugees will only increase as climate change effects global food sources


While we might not be able to stop the effects of climate change on food culture immediately, we should be studying the changes as they happen now.


Traditional food cultures are being slowly destroyed and this loss in knowledge could be devastating to our species if we are able to survive this change in our global climate.


Today, traditional food cultures are growing and using heirloom seeds that might be the key to crop survival in flood-prone regions.


Farmers in small villages in Africa are still using techniques, passed down for generations, that help crops survive severe drought.


Grandmothers, in indigenous communities around the globe, still remember what foods they were able to gather from the forest when their crops failed and the children were crying out in hunger.


All this knowledge is what has kept the human species strong and thriving across the millennia.


The Westernization of the global food landscape is slowly destroying this traditional knowledge but with climate change putting more stress on the human species globally than ever before, this is the knowledge we need to be cultivating.


We survived the last ice age and climate change will not likely be the end of the human race anytime soon.


How well we adapt, how well we feed and ensure the survival of all 7+ billion people on the planet though - that could very well come down to how much we value and preserve the unique traditional food cultures all around us.