It’s a sign of the times: In May 2021, a Museum of Endangered Foods exhibition opened. Like animal species on the brink of extinction, many of our favorite foods are now threatened.
The project features stylized displays to tell the story: a honeybee on a stickpin alongside a beaker of honey; a dissected potato; an imperiled cacao bean beside — gasp — a chocolate bar. Presented as mementos of the perhaps soon-to-be past, the exhibit is startling, grabbing at your stomach as well as your heart.
“One of the most underestimated consequences of climate crisis [is] the extinction of foods,” explain museum creators María Fuentenebro and Mario Mimoso in Madrid, Spain. “When the word ‘endangered’ crosses our minds, we exclusively think about animals: pandas, rhinos, whales . . . but other life-forms such as plants, and also specifically domesticated and edible plants that we consider foods, are also on the verge of extinction.”
Climate change is a key culprit. Extreme weather is hampering growing seasons; changing weather patterns are pushing pests and fungi into new regions.
But there are other things at fault as well. Monocrop farming and genetic modification of our preferred foods have resulted in a loss of species diversity, and this has made the remaining species more vulnerable to pests, molds, fungi, and diseases.
“Our industrialized food system has dramatically reduced the number of crops, breeds of livestock, and types of fish and other aquatic life that are raised, sold, and consumed,” says Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. “Of the roughly 6,000 plant species used for food, nine account for two-thirds of the world’s crop production, and most of our dairy and animal-based protein comes from just a handful of animal species.
“Anytime we reduce the diversity of what is grown, we are increasing risk. It’s analogous to putting all of our savings into a small handful of stocks rather than diversifying.”
These are four favorite foods that are at risk — and what we can do to help save them from extinction.
Among the world’s most widely grown fruits, bananas are the most popular: We each eat an average of 130 a year. They may be the canary in the coal mine for endangered foods.
In the late 1990s, a fungus began killing banana crops in Southeast Asia and Australia; it spread to Latin America in 2019.
Yet while there are more than 1,000 banana varieties, most of us eat just one: the Cavendish. Although it’s not the tastiest, it’s one of the hardiest and can survive Big Ag shipping it around the globe.
Because most corporate plantations grow the Cavendish, says Sethi, it has become almost a monocrop, which leaves it precariously vulnerable to threats.
Scientists are striving to create a new genetically modified variety as well as a vaccine. But they haven’t saved the banana yet.
What you can do: Search out other banana varieties; many, such as red-skinned bananas, are more flavorful. Still, a 2019 study reports that climate change could result in a significant banana-production decline by 2050.
You can also diversify the fruits you eat. And since many veggies and fruits are shipped to us, sometimes from halfway around the globe, look for produce grown close to your home, so it leaves less of a carbon footprint. Eating locally and seasonally are two of the biggest things you can do on the food front to fight the climate crisis.
A nearly ubiquitous carbohydrate, rice is consumed around the world: The grain is grown in more than 100 countries and provides half of the calories for 520 million people living in Asia. But the United Nations warns that a drought combined with rising ocean levels that increase the salinity of groundwater, as well as higher growing temperatures, could by the year 2100 reduce rice yields in parts of Southeast Asia by half. Similar effects of climate change could threaten other foundational foods, such as corn, wheat, and beans.
What you can do: To support other types of crops, you can strive to diversify your foundational carbs: Include brown or black rice, farro, quinoa, and various legumes in your meals. (For more on grain options, see “11 Ancient Grains to Try“.)
A thirsty fruit, each avocado needs some 47 gallons of water over a 14- to 18-month growing period. A mature tree in California can produce about 180 avocados annually, but growers must find water while contending with droughts and warming temperatures.
By 2060, crop yields could drop by 40 percent because of climate change, and in the coming decades, growing avocados in California may no longer be possible. Almonds, other nuts, and olives — which also require copious irrigation — might be similarly affected.
What you can do: While there’s no ideal substitute for avocados and nuts, buying organic will at least help reduce the need for agrochemicals; mining the phosphate and manufacturing pesticides and herbicides contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions.
You can also consider snacking on alternatives, such as sunflower seeds, pepitas, and other seeds.
More than 2 billion cups of coffee — one of the world’s favorite beverages — are consumed daily. But coffee plants have been threatened by coffee-leaf rust fungus and the berry borer bug as higher temperatures, more intense rain, and persistent humidity have led to infestations.
Researchers estimate that 50 percent of the land suitable for growing coffee could be lost by 2050 because of warming temperatures and shifting rain patterns, which also affect vital plant pollinators: bees. And nearly 60 percent of coffee species face extinction, according to a 2019 study.
In Costa Rica, for instance, coffee is grown on mountains, explains Michael Hoffmann, PhD, Cornell University professor emeritus and coauthor of Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, and as temperatures rise, new plants are cultivated at higher elevations. But, he warns, “sooner or later you run out of mountainside.”
What you can do: Seek shade-grown coffee. Many plantations cut down canopy trees for more growing space, but traditional shade-grown methods reduce deforestation and support pollinators. Also look for organic beans, which supports better land stewardship. And there’s always tea, although the climate crisis is affecting tea plantations, too.
What you eat can help fight climate change and help save endangered foods, our experts say. They outline four key strategies for climate-friendly eating:
- Eat a more diverse diet.
- Select local and seasonal foods.
- Eat less meat.
- Waste less food.
“If you are lucky enough to have choices in what you can eat, then you have an opportunity — and I would say a responsibility — to choose well,” explains Sethi. “Farmers can’t grow what we won’t eat. By choosing foods that are biodiverse, we not only build a market for more sustainable crops but help forge a food web that can better respond to climate shocks. One that is, arguably, more nutritious and delicious.” (For more on climate-friendly eating, see “10 Steps to Climate-Friendly Eating“.)
“We can all do something,” notes Hoffmann. “Start your day, pause, look around, and ask, What can I do differently today? Take the bus? Turn off the lights? Help others become aware?
“What we need is a great awakening.”
More Threatened Foods
Fish and Seafood
Fish and seafood are prime sources of protein for more than a billion people, yet a third of all fish are harvested at unsustainable levels, according to former New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman, author of Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal. And climate change is not only warming the waters, but greenhouse gases are raising their acidity. Fish farms — once known as the Blue Revolution — are also proving ecologically expensive, he notes.
Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, a fragile plant accustomed to a specific ecosystem that’s warm and humid: It only thrives within 10 degrees north and south of the equator, and more than half of the world’s supply comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that warming temperatures may dramatically reduce the cultivation region by 2050.
In addition, cacao has largely become a monocrop, Sethi notes: The prominent hybrid in Latin America is CCN51, a large, juicy, robust bean with a high percentage of fat — which is a tradeoff at the expense of flavor, she says. Such lack of diversity can leave monocrops defenseless against infectious diseases and pests. Plus, cacao trees are thirsty, so changes in water supply are affecting them, too.
Diversify the chocolate you eat by seeking out cacao sourced from around the globe. And look for organically grown, Fairtrade-certified chocolate that’s better for the planet and the farmers.
How Climate Change Is Changing What We Eat
A Q&A with Michael Hoffman, PhD
Our favorite foods are being threatened by global warming. Learn what you can do.
“The facts about climate change: It’s real, it’s happening, and we are the cause,” warns Michael Hoffmann, PhD, Cornell University professor emeritus and coauthor of Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need. “It’s not a natural cycle and everything will come around and get back to normal.”
And, he notes in his TEDx Talk, “It’s personal, because it will affect us all.”
The effect will be seen perhaps most obviously on our plates: The climate crisis is bringing more extreme weather, which is hampering growing seasons, flooding some fields with intense downpours like we have never experienced before while causing droughts in other regions. Plus, changing climate patterns are pushing pests and fungi to spread into new regions and crops.
We spoke with Hoffmann about the issues we are all facing.
Experience Life | Do you foresee the climate crisis changing our food supply, and if so in what ways?
Michael Hoffmann | Absolutely, and in subtle and profound ways. Crop plants (including those used to feed the animals we may consume) are being affected by changes in temperature; changes in where precipitation falls (dry areas will get drier, wet areas wetter); changes in the atmosphere, in particular carbon dioxide, which is 50 percent higher than it should be; and changes in soils, now in some cases being washed away by severe storms.
Digging a little deeper, warming winters are affecting most fruit and nut crops that require a winter chill to go dormant; without this, they bear fewer or no fruit or nuts. Georgia, the peach state, experienced an 85 percent drop in yields in 2017 because the previous winter was too warm. California pistachio growers experienced serious losses in 2015, for the same reason. Winters are warming twice as fast as summers in the United States.
Increasing carbon dioxide causes all kinds of changes in crop plants. Ninety-five percent of crop plants benefit from increasing carbon-dioxide levels (they grow bigger and faster), but the consensus is that any benefit will be offset by more extremes in weather. Another effect is profound since it is predicted that many of our staple crops (such as rice and wheat) will be less nutritious by mid-century as levels of carbon dioxide increase. Rice will likely have 30 percent less vitamin B: This has serious implications for many people around the world already subsisting on marginal diets.
More extreme weather is taking its toll on the wine industry. In 2017, world production dropped about 8 percent because of extreme weather. In Italy, Spain, and France, production was down 15 to 23 percent. Wine quality is also affected by increasing temperatures, which can result in higher sugar levels, different aromatic compounds, and lower acidity.
Natural vanilla production in Madagascar is at risk from more intense storms. Prices increased 350 percent a few years ago because of the shortage.
Coffee production worldwide is at risk because of changes in temperature and precipitation along with two pests that love the new conditions. Cacao in Western Africa, where 70 percent is grown, is at increasing risk due to conditions getting drier. Spice production in India is at increasing risk (see “6 Tips for Sourcing High-Quality, Fair-Trade Spices” to learn more); marine fish populations are moving as waters warm; hot cows give less milk.
There are unlimited stories to tell about how climate change is affecting our food.
EL | What can we as individuals do?
MH | We can all do a lot. Become climate-change literate so you can make informed decisions about the actions you need to take. Start talking about it; in the United States, relatively few do. Consider changes in diet such as treating red meat as a delicacy versus a staple. Get involved locally to nationally.
In the United States, climate change is politicized, so get political.
We should also appreciate those who keep the food on our menu. It’s tough being a farmer or rancher, and it’s only getting tougher. And assess your entire carbon footprint — fly, drive, light, heat, and cool less, and consume less stuff.
As Greta Thunberg, who weighs in at 105 pounds, says, “No one is too small to make a difference.”
Climate Change and the Loss of Foods We Love
A Q&A With Simran Sethi
How you can help save the foods you savor.
The foods we love are threatened by the climate crisis, but there are other key factors as well, reports journalist Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love (learn more about Sethi here). The globalization of our food supply is resulting in a more uniform diet around the world, and farmers are growing less diverse crops and crop species — all of which endangers our food due to risk of pests and diseases.
The United States’ cultural dominance has extended to diet, she writes, creating worldwide food trends. “The refined carbohydrates, animal proteins, and added fats and sugars that make up the majority of our diets have also become the template diet for the world.”
And this has affected what we farm, often resulting in monocrops.
“Globally, foods have become more alike and less diverse,” she notes. “As the amount of food around the world has shrunk to just a handful of crops, regional and local crops have become scarce or disappeared altogether. Wheat, rice, potatoes, and corn, plus palm oil and soybeans, are what we all eat now — the same type and the same amount.”
As Sethi says, “We’re turning food into any other commodity, but food isn’t like a widget: It’s something that holds our story, it’s something that’s part of our collective memory, it’s what literally nourishes us — our soul, our bodies, our economies.”
We spoke with Sethi about how the climate crisis and trends in eating and farming are affecting our food supply.
Experience Life | What do we lose if we lose a favorite food?
Simran Sethi | ”Extinct” means forever. When we lose a crop, animal breed, or aquatic life due to climate change, industrialization, diseases, pests, or other factors, it’s gone. But what we also lose are the stories behind that food: the people, the places, the deeper connections that remind us of who we are.
EL | Beyond climate change, how has this come about?
SS | Our industrialized food system has dramatically reduced the number of crops, breeds of livestock, and types of fish and other aquatic life that are raised, sold, and consumed. A 2019 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization found that of the roughly 6,000 plant species used for food, nine account for two-thirds of the world’s crop production, and most of our dairy and animal-based protein come from just a handful of animal species. In order to sustain the broad diversity behind the foods we love, we have to keep growing and saving a wider range of these crops so we can breed in traits we might need in the future in order to sustain them.
EL | You also write that many of these species have become grown as monocrops that can be that much more fragile and susceptible to climate change?
SS | Industrial agriculture had noble roots: grow food as efficiently as possible in order to feed as many people as possible. But priorities have shifted. Food is grown cheaply — a few dominant crops in monoculture — but the main goal seems to be to increase shareholder value and grow profits, rather than ensure all are fed. Anytime we reduce the diversity of what is grown, we are increasing risk. It’s analogous to putting all of our savings into a small handful of stocks rather than diversifying. We wouldn’t do that because we know it increases risk. Yet this is what we are doing with our food supply.
EL | What can we as individuals do about all this?
SS | First, be grateful for what you have. So many of those involved in food and farming don’t earn enough to feed themselves well.
Second, know that, if you are lucky enough to have choices in what you can eat, that you have an opportunity — and I would say a responsibility — to choose well. Farmers can’t grow what we won’t eat. By choosing foods that are biodiverse, we not only build a market for more sustainable crops, but help forge a food web that can better respond to climate shocks. One that is, arguably, more nutritious and delicious.
This article originally appeared as “Endangered Foods” in the May 2022 issue of Experience Life.