A team from Cornell University recently launched a new website, Our Changing Menu, that helps to illustrate the impacts of the climate crisis on food. The website details how climate change is altering the growing cycles, production, and availability of popular foods, with the aim of motivating people to take action against the issue.
The website is a companion to a new book called Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, available in paperback and as an ebook. The authors of the book, Dr. Mike Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Dr. Danielle L. Eiseman, offer this additional resource to expand on their work and to keep it current with rapidly developing climate science. The website makes the latest studies and updated information available. “The story [of climate change] is constantly changing, and people need to know that,” Hoffmann tells Food Tank.
The authors focus Our Changing Menu on people in the United States, because of the large role the country plays in driving climate change. Using a hypothetical menu that reflects the components of a typical meal eaten in the U.S., the website shows that as the climate changes so will the menu.
The website also demonstrates that climate change is more than just warming temperatures; it also affects the key components of food production, including soil health, surface and sea water, and air composition. Hoffmann explains that warmer temperatures mean that pests will live longer and do more damage. Transport logistics will be complicated by barges stranded due to low water levels on shipping lanes. Weeds will become hardier as carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rise. Such evolving conditions will have significant impacts on productivity and on the people who earn a living from food and agriculture.
Growers can already see erratic growing cycles where too few cold periods or unpredictable rainfall makes Georgia peaches or California pistachios scarce. Beyond availability, climate change is also impacting the nutritional qualities and flavor profiles of foods. Take the case of Arabica coffee, which is sensitive to heat stress. “[It] needs high elevations and cool temperatures to grow and is considered one of the finest flavors. … As growers are running out of places to plant, they either need to seek other varieties or switch production [to another crop],” Koplinka-Loehr tells Food Tank.
Through the website’s two databases of ingredients, users can also learn how climatic conditions will influence not only food ingredients, but also other plant-based products such as textiles, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, and perfumes.
Despite the urgency of action required to tackle the climate crisis, the authors remain hopeful and include suggestions for action in the book. They describe how farmers, businesses, and scientists are adapting to climate change. This includes developing more heat-tolerant and drought-resistant crops, using less water to reduce methane in rice cultivation, and transforming livestock waste into heat and electricity. Our Changing Menu also suggests steps that individuals can take.
The authors also see parallels to the COVID-19 crisis. “One thing that occurs to me with the pandemic, as we gained knowledge, we changed behaviors. We were able to sacrifice, because we understood the cost of not doing so. … When I think about the pandemic in relation to the book, I think about the power that people have to change, if they want to,” Koplinka-Loehr explains.
Eventually, the Our Changing Menu team wants the website to become a place to exchange ideas around climate change. “We thought that building a website and creating ways to interact through social media could help really engage a much bigger audience and have them show us what’s happening where they are and show us how they’re experiencing climate change through food,” adds Eiseman.
In addition to the under-construction website, there are Twitter and Instagram pages for Our Changing Menu. There are also plans to include guest blog posts and to develop a web series. The team behind Our Changing Menu welcomes feedback and contributions from the public, academics, and food and agricultural industry professionals about how they see food changing due to climate change.
Hoffmann emphasizes that Our Changing Menu takes a novel approach to raising awareness about the climate crisis. “One of the challenges with climate change is how to communicate about it. We’re using food, which is relevant to everyone’s life. Making that connection, we feel quite strongly, resonates with people, with cultures, with family histories. Food is personal, and we love it. And we celebrate it.”