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.
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