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November 30th, 2016

Break Stuff

BY Christian Ford

There are the things you know are coming, and then there are the things that you can imagine are coming and, regrettably, it’s the latter that matters.  So, in light of an election which shuffled impossible into inescapable, perhaps it is time to revisit the list of “yeah, someday,” and “maybe, I dunno” food events that we’ve all heard of but which have never crossed the imaginative border into reality.

I’ll focus on seven foods, but it’s not really seven.  It’s just that seven is one of those numbers that sounds good in mythological storytelling or a headline, so we’ll go with that, because seven is more than enough.

Coffee.  Chocolate.  Beer.  Honey.  Lobster.  Wine.  Bananas.

Have any of these in your home?  Missing one or two?  Good.  Because now is the time to wonder what it would mean if you couldn’t fill that void by running to the store.  The reason is that our charismatic seven are all squarely in the crosshairs of both our changing climate and the economic system which drives that change.  For over a decade now, studies have repeatedly reminded us that because (ahem) food comes from the natural world, changing the natural world also changes the foods it produces.

Coffee is a good place to start, if only because it’s the second most-traded commodity after petroleum.  Before your cup of java grew in Java, all coffee originally came from the cool highlands of Africa.  This sort of environment, coolish but with the constancy of the tropics, isn’t that easy to find and coffee is very particular about temperature and moisture.  So although coffee is grown all around the world today, it is grown in landscapes that are analogues to its African homeland.  With increasing temperatures, the first-blush solution is simply to move the plantations to cooler temperatures at higher elevations.  But there’s a funny thing about hills and mountains, namely that they get smaller as they go up.  So while  some areas have higher plateaus on which coffee can be planted, that’s not where most coffee is growing now.

What’s more, coffee tastes like coffee because of subtle mixtures of aromatic compounds.    Higher temperatures overcrank the coffee tree’s metabolism, jumbling aromatic ratios, so while you can move coffee production uphill — slowly, and with difficulty, because they are trees and take time to grow — the flavor of the coffee you get won’t be the same and I’m not holding out hope for it being an improvement.

But climate change’s signature cocktail isn’t just about heat, it also includes colonizing pests  and opportunistic disease in addition to erratic and violent weather.  Brazil is the world’s largest coffee growing country, but drought is ravaging the coffee growing regions.  Coffee’s primary pest, the berry borer beetle prefers warmer temperatures and now it’s got them.  In Africa’s coffee heartland of Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, the beetle was hardly known before the turn of the century.  Now, it’s causing half a billion dollars in damage to the African crop and — because these are good times to be a berry borer beetle — their reproduction rate of five generations per year is on its way to ten.

You don’t have to be a bug to get in on the fun, however.  With the same sort of speed and surprise that toadstools erupt overnight, leaf rust fungus is suddenly everywhere in coffee regions.   There is some dispute about whether the attack of leaf rust is climate change related.  A recent study from the University of Exeter places the blame on economics, saying that the 2008 downturn diminished the amount of fertilizer growers were able to use, thus precipitating the leaf rust plague.  While this may be the case, I suggest that Exeter’s field of view is a tad narrow, since both the downturn and the climate stem from a common source, an economic system which is no longer able to outrun its slipstream of waste.

Chocolate, too, has that deer in the headlights look.  It’s a rainforest inhabitant, growing in a band 10° north and south of the equator.  Like coffee, it’s particular, needing mostly constant temperatures, lots of rain, specific soils, protection from wind and consistently high humidity.  No surprise, this particular environmental blend is not on the global list of things to keep.

The story is monotonously familiar for the rest of our endangered delicacies; they (and we) belong to a world that exists only in memory.    And that’s really the problem, because it doesn’t feel like memory.  Blame a tech economy built on selling distraction, or blame being an animal that doesn’t gag when breathing air with more than 400 ppm of carbon, but either way, we cannot perceive the predicament engulfing us without engaging our imaginations… but engaging our imaginations suggests that we are imagining things, which puts us back where we started.

I’m starting to wonder, inspired by our current political predicament, if the answer lies not in  attempting to expand our awareness in time to avoid the oncoming train, but rather in lying down on the tracks until such senses as we do have begin to detect the ominously swelling vibrations.   You might consider this as enlightenment through breaking stuff, and — while I really would prefer to not break all the many things we’re in the process of breaking — history does suggest that this is American culture’s native mode.  We rarely, if ever, seem to have the prescience to sidestep easily avoidable catastrophe, but we tend to respond with great energy, inventiveness and even selflessness once everything is  a shambles — WWII being the most notable example.

The current moment, of course, is a much, much bigger debacle, and one that is much, much less amenable to technical solutions.  So perhaps it’s too much to hope that the vanishing of coffee (or at least affordable coffee) along with chocolate, honey, bananas (and did I mention peanut butter and beer, too?) would be enough to quite literally bring home the reality of the world where we live.

But then again, maybe it can.  For all our digital fascinations and virtual connections, we remain actual when it comes to food.  I sometimes think that that all of our favorites are substitutions for that very first food.  If you’ve ever seen a baby cry for feeding, you’d be excused for saying that they squall as though their lives depend upon it and you, and they, would both be right.  It’s a literally existential hunger and that — even in our overfed society — is knowledge that can never be forgotten.  So perhaps, on the day when the cupboard is chronically bare of that most special thing, we will remember what its absence means, and begin to wonder if the place which once offered up such treasures is also a memory.


Broken Smile by Antti T. Nissinen
Handful of Beans by Caroline Jiang
The Chocolate Factory by Jan Bommes