All About Food: Climate change will change how we eat

Climate change seems to be one of the hot topics (no pun intended) of our time. For the most part, the naysayers — faced with ample scientific works suggesting that climate change is having an effect on every ecosystem from the equator to the poles — are finally coming around.

What aspects of this phenomenon are going to affect, or are currently affecting, our food? More importantly, what can we do about it? Many scientists are pessimistic, but others are working on finding solutions.

One problem that has been occurring for some time is the acidification of seawater from the absorption of carbon dioxide. This may cause depression of metabolic rate and immune responses in some organisms.

Another problem, the warming of sea water, reduces the waters' ability to carry dissolved oxygen, causing the shrinking or demise of ocean fish. Fish are migrating to colder waters, and fishermen who have relied on an abundance of fish are having trouble catching enough to earn a living.

Big, active fish will have more of a problem because they have greater oxygen needs. So in the future, we may be eating some of the lowest of the species, like jellyfish, which thrive in dead zones. Asia already has tapped a $120-million-a-year industry dealing in certain kinds of jellyfish.

Methane emissions from beef, and other grass-eating creatures like rabbits and sheep, are seriously polluting the environment, but a surprising side note is that rice production also increases methane gas: When organic matter decays without oxygen, as it does in waterlogged paddies, bacteria in the water generates methane gas.

In fact, in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, "Asian rice is responsible for a volume of methane nearly equal to that produced by all the cows in the world."

It is true that a vegetarian diet is better for the planet, but a lot of non-arable land can't produce anything a vegetarian would want to eat, though it might provide grazing for sheep, goats and other animals.

Chickens are much better for the environment in that they are efficient eaters of grain, and their waste is enriching in ways that other animals' is not. They have very little non-recyclable waste. Americans are now eating 60 pounds of chicken per person each year compared with 16 pounds in 1950.

It is likely that we will be adjusting our diets to include things that we have not eaten in the past, such as weeds, nettles, dandelions and borage, which are sustainable, as well as types of wild game that we don't usually eat.

Currently, only 30 crops provide 95% of calories consumed worldwide. Some 7,000 plant species are called orphans, or neglected or underutilized species. Many of these have the bonus of being climate-hardy. Examples include prickly pear cactus, amaranth and mesquite (flour).

We must also rely on science to create crops that can survive the climate changes. Some crops will need to be repositioned in new latitudes. Genetically improving crops may also become a big factor, and though many people are against genetically modified organisms (GMOs), these may provide some necessary solutions in the future.

Warming of 1 degree centigrade will have a big negative effect, but we will see some benefits, like an increase in potato production in the northern states and perhaps navy beans becoming a major crop in England. Crops like soybeans and sorghum may move to Canada. A 2% increase in the climate would dramatically hurt the cultivation of wheat and rice.

This is a topic of great importance, and I have touched only the surface. For more information, read the food issue of Scientific American, the IPCC report or the article on taste and climate change in Gastronomica for starters.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at

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