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Climate change is already affecting your grocery bill

As I hunkered down in my rented flat in Cambridge, England, in early November to avoid the deluge of rain and record-breaking winds of Storm Ciaran, I lamented that I was there at all.

For over a year, I’d planned to be in Italy at this time, helping friends of a friend pick olives from the 500 trees that make up Colle delle Querce, their agritourism operation near Todi.

Fifteen years ago, my husband Andy and I stayed in one of the stone villas sitting among those same trees in Todi, an ancient hill town in Umbria. Each day we enjoyed meals that used the property’s own olive oil, so green and peppery. It sat in bottles on the tiled countertop next to a phone with a local Nonna’s number on speed dial should you need to call for advice on how to cook with it.

But prolonged, blistering heat in the region last summer severely damaged the olive crop for the second year in a row. My hosts said it would not be worth my effort to make the trip, even if no-frills RyanAir was offering £78 round-trip airline tickets. They added that the remnants of Storm Ciaran – heavy rain was expected in Italy – might prevent them from harvesting even the few ripe olives on the trees.

Like all agricultural products, olive crops have good and bad years. But the past two growing seasons in most of the Mediterranean have been particularly bad. According to figures released by the International Olive Council, olive oil production in the European Union – mainly in Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal – has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade. Soaring summer temperatures, droughts, wildfires, hailstorms and pestilence are at fault.

Pockets of the region fared better last summer, including the whole of Turkey and a small spot in Tuscany where Maine chef Sara Jenkins has family property. The olives there benefited from a favorable microclimate. If you’re lucky enough to dine at Nina June, Jenkins’s restaurant in Rockport, you can taste that olive oil. But the Turkish government has banned bulk olive oil exports to ensure adequate domestic supplies.

Granted, you may not feel sorry for me because I can’t pop over to the continent for a hands-on experience in the ancient practice of pressing olives into oil. But expect to feel climate change’s ever-growing tax on your own wallet when you buy olive oil in the future. In May, its global price reached a 26-year high; it has since increased by another 30 percent, and is expected to keep rising thanks to the poor 2023 harvest. The USDA has predicted the price increase in 2024 could be as high as 35 percent.

Back in my Cambridge flat, I sipped a cuppa and contemplated strategies for cooking with less Mediterranean olive oil, which I consider both a pantry stable and a desert island ingredient. Then I researched other ways climate change will impact my grocery budget going forward.

One of the most succinct explanations I’ve read of how global warming affects food production was posted in late October by The Meteorological Office, the UK’s version of the U.S. National Weather Service.

The authors explained that global warming brings increased levels of evaporation because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture – approximately 7% more moisture per 1 degree Celsius of warming. So, more moisture gets sucked out of the soil, depriving the plants, and making the land more vulnerable to erosion from wind and eventual rainfall.

Increased evaporation also means that when it does rain, it almost always pours. Intense rainfall can damage crops at various times in their growth cycle. Warmer and then wetter conditions also make the environment more hospitable to existing pests and newer invasive species, further jeopardizing agricultural productivity.

I needed a second cuppa to fortify myself as I compiled this list of pantry staples that market analysts and climate scientists say are, or will be, in short supply. I’ve added a few options for dealing with those shortages as you cook.

Cocoa and coffee

A recent study published by scientists at the Natural History Museum in London delved into the effect climate change is having on the hard-working pollinators that help set the fruit of cacao and coffee plants in tropical regions around the world. The shaded, damp environments these pollinators prefer are becoming less common as the effects of climate change intensify.

As a consumer, you can always reach for coffee and chocolate products that sport Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance labels, both of which hold growers to a high level of environmental responsibility while providing a just wage for workers. Back in the kitchen, you can also combine cocoa and coffee, say in a chocolate cake; small amounts of each will amplify the volume of the other.

Grains

According to data collected by the National Geographic Society, climate change is heavily affecting staple corn, oat and wheat crops around the world. Temperature variations and decreased, unreliable rainfall are expected to reduce global production of maize 20 percent by 2050. As for wheat production, cooler regions like North America and Europe may benefit, seeing a more than 5% increase in yields, rainfall permitting. But in more vulnerable areas like India, which produces 14% of the world’s wheat, the hotter, drier weather is expected to hit yields hard.

To help combat predicted reduced harvests elsewhere, Maine cooks can opt to buy cornmeal, oats and wheat flours made from locally grown grains, giving the global industry time to find ways to adapt grain varieties to climate change.

Olive Oil

Olive oil producers in California have long contended with high labor and material costs. But the impacts of climate change mean that olive oil from Spain, Italy and Greece now costs nearly as much. I will likely reach for California oils when I return to the U.S. And I will rely more heavily on my favorite olive oil spray bottle rather than freely glugging the stuff into the pan. For salad dressings, I’ll move to 50/50 split with local organic sunflower oil.

Potatoes

By 2050, global production of potatoes could decrease by as much as 9 percent, according to Action Against Hunger, a world-wide hunger tracking and relief organization. Potatoes need a steady supply of water to grow, which means fewer areas will be suitable for potato production. In potato-growing places that rely on melting mountain snowpack, like Idaho, or a steady rainy season, like Bolivia, farmers will need to adapt varieties or invest in irrigation to maintain production. Maine has a long, strong potato-growing heritage – buy local potatoes as often as you can afford to.


PASTA ALLA NORCINA 

Umbria trip cancelled, I comforted myself with this traditional Umbrian pasta dish, which comes from the area near Norcina, famous for its pork products. The dish is traditionally topped with shavings of local truffles. Truffles don’t grow in Maine, of course, and they are expensive to buy. But you can get some of the same earthy flavor by using Casco Bay Creamery’s Truffle Butter in place of plain butter in the sauce, or by finishing the dish with a bit of Black Truffle Salt from either Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants or Skordo.

Serves 4

Kosher salt
1 pound mild Italian pork sausage, removed from casings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
8 ounces mixed fresh mushrooms, chopped
1 pound dried tubular pasta like penne, rigatoni or ziti
1 ounce dried mushrooms, reconstituted in 1/2 cup hot water
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
A pinch of grated nutmeg
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
Shaved black truffles, optional

Place a large pot of salted water over high heat. Cover and bring to a boil.

Place a large skillet over medium heat. Crumble the raw sausage into the pan and cook, breaking the sausage apart into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon, until it is starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the olive oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add the chopped onions and fresh chopped mushrooms. Stir to coat the vegetables and continue to cook until they are softened, 6-8 minutes.

Meanwhile, drop the pasta into the boiling water and cook to al dente according to the instructions on the box. Reserve 2 cups of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and set aside.

Drain the reconstituted mushrooms, reserving the liquid, and chop the rehydrated mushrooms finely. Add the chopped reconstituted mushrooms, garlic, thyme leaves, red pepper flakes and nutmeg to the cooked mushroom and sausage mixture in the pan. Strain the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and add it and the wine to the pan. Stir to combine, and simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated, 6-8 minutes.

Add the cream and 1 cup of reserved pasta water to the pan and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, 3-4 minutes. Add 1/2 cup pecorino Romano cheese and stir to combine. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Add the cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce and toss well, adding more pasta water as needed to make the sauce glossy. Serve the pasta immediately with more cheese, black pepper, and shaved truffles, if using.


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