Climate change has much in store for menus, with sushi, coffee and chocolate in its crosshairs

Some of chefs’ favorite ingredients are threatened by drought, heat waves and other forces of nature, but there’s still time to take action.
climate change effects
Climate change has the potential to impact the food crops that chefs cherish and consider essential./Photograph: Shutterstock

If your menu includes sushi, coffee, gin and tonics, chocolate cake or a number of other popular items, take note.

Climate change is impacting the supply and flavor of these ingredients and others that chefs and menu developers cherish or consider essential. Drought, heat waves and other weather-related forces are on the rise, 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 happening and what operators can do about it during a recent episode of the Menu Feed podcast. His takeaways may change up how restaurants and foodservice operators develop menus in the future.  

Coffee, chocolate and wine are consumer and restaurant favorites. How are these threatened?

Coffee is at high risk from new pests that thrive in warmer temperatures and drier conditions. The rain doesn’t fall where it used to in the coffee growing regions, and that is affecting yield and flavor. As far as chocolate goes, 40%-50% of the cacao used in chocolate production comes from West Africa. Changing conditions there are making it more difficult for farmers to grow and harvest cacao beans.

In a survey conducted by Hoffmann and his co-authors, respondents were asked to compare their concern for coffee, chocolate, beer and wine. “They were most worried about the first two,” said Hoffman. “I was surprised, because I really like my wine, and high temperatures in California are affecting wine grapes … the acidity, flavor and aroma. We’ll still keep making wine, but in the future we’ll grow different varieties of grapes that are more resilient to climate change.”

Sushi is a mainstay not only in Japanese restaurants—it’s a must-have in college dining, food halls and even supermarkets. Is it on its way out?

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

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

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

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

Extreme drought can hurt chile pepper production, as the recent Sriracha shortage demonstrated. (The Mexican crop of red jalapenos that serve as the base for the spicy sauce was in very short supply.)

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

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

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

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

Bourbon and Scotch are impacted in a different way. These spirits age in oak barrels and traditionally lose about 2% by volume through evaporation. Now that the atmosphere is warming, evaporation will increase and speed up and volume will decrease, said Hoffmann.

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

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

But what can operators, chefs and others in the industry do to support the farmers and scientists who are meeting the challenge?

“Start by getting informed about climate change so you can make informed decisions,” said Hoffmann. “Getting informed should be on 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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