I love thinking about the future of food. I suppose it was a desire to take a long term, big picture view of our food system that drove me to study sustainability and work in this field. Food interacts with every other part of our lives. We live in a very privileged time and place which means that we don’t need to think about its role very much. This is, until we reach some kind of a crisis point.
Climate Change is one such crisis. However, because it is a creeping crises rather than a dramatic, sudden one we think less about it. When it comes to food, most of us just go about our weekly trip to the grocery store without noticing changes. The relative homogeneity of the supermarkets disguises the real impact of climate change on shoppers. If you are someone who likes things to stay the same each and every week when you go into a supermarket you had better hold onto your hat, because climate change is set to alter the way we shop. In fact it is already starting to.
I’m going to start a series looking at the consumer-end of the food system and unpack how what you see on the shelves each week is might change with the predicted impact of climate change. Some of this is speculation of course. No one has a magic crystal ball that lets them see into the future. But all of this is based on the real impact of climate change on our established ways of doing things.
Food is a huge topic, but let’s break it down category by category – or aisle by aisle, if you like. In part one of this series, I want to look at how climate change might affect what is in your fruit bowl. Let’s go.
It could change what your fruit looks like
The Cripps Pink (known by its trademark name the Pink Lady) apple is one of the most commonly eaten apples in Australia. It is has sweet, firm flesh and stays tasty even when grown quite large. Usually this apple has a pink blush over a green base. However, in early 2016 growers in the Sydney region experienced a warmer than normal growing season. These apples need a certain number of cold days to ‘set’ their trademark colour and because of the warmer weather the Pink Ladies weren’t, well, pink. Although they tasted the same they didn’t look ripe. Farmers weren’t paid the premium price for their crop and shoppers needed extra encouragement to see that the fruit was ok to eat.
With heatwaves and temperature spikes predicted to increase in coming years, growers may face more challenges like this. Some varieties of apple may benefit from the warmer temperatures, but other varieties may look strange to us or have a different texture than we expect. Be prepared for what you see in the fruit and veg aisle to be different to what you are used to.
Get used to trying new things
We know that climate change impacts the natural biodiversity of the planet. But growers will also face decisions about the types of crops they plant. Some parts of the country – and the globe – may be able to extend their growing seasons which is generally a good thing, and for consumers it can mean more produce is available for longer. However, other parts of the country may need to change the types of crops they grow. If droughts become more prolonged irrigators in places like the Murray-Darling basin (often described as Australia’s fruit bowl) may need to adopt less water-hungry crops. Stone fruits and apples may lose out entirely to fruits that don’t need a winter chill to set their fruit. As farmers diversify their businesses you might need to become accustomed to fruit like jujubes (a type of date popular in China) or things you might consider exotic. So get used to experimenting and expanding your palate.
As the climate changes, regions around Australia that are icons known for a certain product (think vineyards in the Barossa) may no longer be able to grow the products that made them famous. On the plus side, other areas may rise to prominence as growing areas. Mangoes may now be able to be grown in Melbourne and even if the areas where we can grow berries decrease significantly. But all is not lost. We may also see a deliberate increase in the cultivation of aboriginal food plants many of which, as natives to this continent, have the ability to with stand the extreme conditions predicted to occur as the impact of climate change is felt. In my opinion, this is a good and long over due thing. But once, again it may challenge our skills and capacities by introducing unfamiliar ingredients.
Be prepared for price spikes
In 2006 Cyclone Larry flattened around 80% of the banana production area in Australia. Cyclone Yasi did almost the same thing in 2011. Why do I remember those dates so keenly? Because both times I was in charge of feeding a toddler for whom bananas were a staple food. Both times the price of bananas shot through the roof (to about $15 per kilo as I recall). Smoothie kiosks began to put up signs advertising a 50c banana surcharge. I had friends who bought bananas in bulk to stockpile them in the freezer. My household budget couldn’t absorb this cost so I refused to buy bananas at all.
But such extreme weather events are predicted to get worse as the impact of climate change is felt, so you may start to see these price spikes more often if we continue to concentrate our food production in vulnerable areas and diminish the food production capacity of the peri-urban areas around our cities.
And maybe even shortages
Maybe your budget can absorb the big hit associated with an increase in natural disasters. If so, that’s good. But price surges like this are bad for the poorest people in our society who are food insecure and can’t afford to absorb the cost. It limits their ability to access fresh nutritious food. What happens if we see massive price rises not just for one type of fruit (like bananas), but across several all at once? And how might we see that inequality of access play out? The “Arab spring” that saw several governments toppled in the Middle East in 2010 is partly attributed to a spike in the price of bread (thanks to a variety of factors that drove up the price of wheat across the globe). It seems unlikely such a thing would happen in Australia, but the consequences of massive prices rises are often very serious. Geo-politics aside, how would your household cope with this impact of climate change? It’s worth thinking about whether you have to capacity within your own home to cope with dramatic changes to supply, price spikes and shortages.
Next Up: I’ll look at how Climate Change might impact what you see in the butcher’s cabinet.
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