Climate change has a lot to offer on menus, with sushi, coffee and chocolate in the spotlight

Climate change has the potential to impact food crops that chefs cherish and consider essential./Photo: Shutterstock

If your menu includes sushi, coffee, gin and tonic, chocolate cake, or any number of other popular dishes, take note.

Climate change is impacting the supply and flavor of these and other ingredients that chefs and menu designers cherish or consider essential. Drought, heat waves and other weather forces are on the increase, negatively affecting the quality and quantity of food crops and livestock.

Michael P. Hoffmann, professor emeritus at Cornell University and co-author of “Our Changing Menu,” explained what’s going on and what operators can do about it during a recent episode of the Menu Feed podcast. Its takeout could change the way restaurants and food service operators develop menus in the future.

Coffee, chocolate and wine are consumer and restaurant favourites. How are they threatened?

Coffee is very susceptible to new pests that thrive in warmer temperatures and drier conditions. Rain no longer falls as it used to in coffee growing regions, affecting yield and flavor. When it comes to chocolate, 40-50% of the cocoa used in chocolate production comes from West Africa. Changing conditions are making it harder for farmers to grow and harvest cocoa beans.

In a survey conducted by Hoffmann and his co-authors, respondents were asked to compare their preoccupation with coffee, chocolate, beer and wine. “They were more worried about the first two,” Hoffman said. “I was surprised, because I really love my wine, and the high temperatures in California are affecting the wine grapes…acidity, flavor and aroma. We will continue to make wine, but at the future, we will grow different varieties of grapes that are more resistant to climate change.

Sushi is a mainstay not only in Japanese restaurants, but also in university canteens, food halls, and even supermarkets. Is he going out?

California produces 99% of the short grain rice used for sushi. The state’s ongoing severe drought and lack of water to flood the rice paddies are hampering production. And globally, the nutritional content of rice is declining. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in growing regions affect rice plants in strange ways, Hoffmann said.

The supply of certain species of seafood, the other essential component of sushi, is also a concern. Rising ocean temperatures and increasing water acidity are destroying habitats for fish and shellfish. And fish populations are shifting, sometimes making them less accessible. “The best we can do to preserve seafood is to minimize climate change,” Hoffmann said.

“The good news is that other species are thriving,” he adds. “Squid and octopus do well in warmer waters, so they are more abundant.”

Are there any foods that could be positively affected by climate change?

Extreme drought can adversely affect chili production, as the recent Sriracha shortage demonstrated. (The Mexican harvest of red jalapenos that serve as the base for the spicy sauce was very rare.)

But for fans of hot and spicy, “chili peppers of all kinds are getting hotter and hotter because of climate change,” Hoffmann said.

Replacing beef with pork on the menu can also mitigate the effects of climate change, if done on a large scale. Beef cattle are ruminants and contribute methane to the atmosphere during digestion, Hoffmann points out. This adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Since pigs don’t have this type of digestive system, pork is a smarter choice for the climate.

What about the drinks side of the menu? Is it time to review the cocktail menu?

Climate change also affects the production of spirits. Gin distillers, for example, choose from 150 different botanicals to create its unique flavor. Some are grown high up in the mountains, and when it gets too hot for these plants to flourish, they will be lost.

Bourbon and Scotch are impacted differently. These spirits age in oak barrels and traditionally lose around 2% in volume through evaporation. Now that the atmosphere is warming, evaporation will increase and accelerate and the volume will decrease, Hoffmann said.

“Climate change poses a huge threat to agriculture and food production,” Hoffmann said. “We need to stabilize the system to minimize future risks.”

Farmers are taking action through climate-smart agriculture and technology. Healthy soil is essential, he said, and precision farming through GPS technology, targeted irrigation and crop diversification is improving conditions.

But what can operators, chefs and other industry players do to support farmers and scientists who are rising to the challenge?

“Start by educating yourself about climate change so you can make informed decisions,” Hoffmann said. “Getting informed should be at the top of the list, followed by talking with others. Start the conversation and share the story. The antidote to despair is action.

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