Bacon, the Official Food of the Internet (meat division) is in trouble – and it’s not alone! This week saw several news stories about the potential impacts of climate change and increased carbon dioxide emissions on the foods we eat. From the sea to the land, our delicious meats and some of our delicious grains seem to be feeling the effects of a changing world. What exactly these changes mean for us and for the ecosystem is still murky, but observing and tracking them now is crucial for our ability to adapt to them.
So what are the stories exactly? Well, on the land, the American Midwest and parts of Canada are facing a drought that makes grain production a risky business. The loss of grain and corn has effects all the way up the food chain, and now threatens pork production in the two countries. The lack of grain and the increased cost makes maintaining a hog farm more costly than ever. Farmers are being forced to sell off their herds. While this means that initially consumers might find a cheap pork bonanza, that glut will soon disappear, leaving supermarkets with fewer and more expensive pork products. No pork means no sausage, no ham, and dun dun dunnnnn, no bacon.
The sea isn’t faring much better, but there the threat comes down a completely different path. As we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some of it ends up getting absorbed by the oceans. The more the ocean absorbs, the more acidic it gets. Scientists have found a significant change in ocean acidity that is already threatening marine life and may completely alter several marine ecosystems, like coral reefs. Many marine organisms build shells or skeletons from calcium carbonate, which dissolves in acid. More acidic oceans means that these shells and skeletons are more brittle, more easily damaged, and harder to build.
What does that mean for seafood? Well, some species of oysters and mussels that are farmed for human consumption are finding the acidic oceans really detrimental to their ability to not be dead. The larval, young forms of these species are particularly sensitive to the acidity, which means that entire farms could get wiped out.
I don’t want to overstate anything, so I’m going to include this small clerical clarity note. Some of the links to climate change are tentative, like the unusually long and severe drought facing the American Midwest and its subsequent effect on grains and pork production. While this specific drought cannot be pointed to as “a sign of climate change” (imagine me pointing my finger at it and gasping in horror like in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers), extreme weather and an increasingly dry Midwest are some of the conditions predicted by many climate change models. Other links, like the increasingly acidic ocean and its effects on sea food and mussels, have strong scientific support.
I don’t want to sound all doom-and-gloom, either. Seeing real impacts of carbon dioxide emissions is not unexpected and not every negative change we see can be attributed to our changing climate. Farmers, consumers, and researchers should continue to track the changes their seeing so that even if we cannot stop things from happening, we can immediately address them. We need to be ready to adapt – we are certainly capable of it.