Climate change already yielding food disruptions

A recurring theme of last fall’s Kaw Valley Farm Tour was the terrible, killing freeze of the preceding spring. Now, scientists are suggesting that climate change may mean more of the same, and that’s bad news for local food in places with four seasons, a.k.a. most of the country.

The March issue of BioScience magazine includes an article by Lianhong Gu and others that points out the irony of milder winters that result in frozen plants. I gather that the possibility was hypothesized 20 years ago and hasn’t been adequately studied, but we certainly got a fine example of the possibility last spring. The hypothesis, quoted from the abstract:

…is that mild winters and warm, early springs, which are expected to occur as the climate warms, may induce premature plant development, resulting in exposure of vulnerable plant tissues and organs to subsequent late-season frosts.

That’s what we got, and that weather is still on my mind, as I remember the utter absence of local fruit last year (except for some late everbearing raspberries). Oh, how we reveled in the warm days of March last year — until April came along and ruined everything. It makes me a bit wary about wishing our endless-seeming winter away too quickly.

And then there’s the inevitable, to my mind, "corn shock" that the Los Angeles Times’ Jerry Hirsch wrote about on Sunday. Even in the absence of climate change, it’s pretty amazing that anyone would bet the national wellbeing on weather in the Great Plains, which is infamous for its changeability. (Most recent example: Sunday’s temperature fell from 72 degrees around noon to 43 by 6 p.m. here in Lawrence, Kansas.)

What does this all add up to for us as eaters? For starters, it’s another reminder that our sustenance is intimately intertwined with the climate and environment, and it’s something we ignore at our peril. "Eat local" may be fashionable, but there’s far more to it than fashion.

As consumers, we may feel helpless in scanning the grocery aisles for real food (that’s the kind that Grandma — or Great-Grandma for Gen X and the Millennials — would recognize), but consumers do affect the market. So put biodiversity on your plate — not just those delectable heritage tomatoes, but also oddball native species like pawpaws or those gritty pears that make fine jams and greens that you might ordinarily bypass. And when you’re at the supermarket, read labels; skip the produce from another hemisphere or anything where high-fructose corn syrup is a prominent ingredient. (It’s difficult to skip it entirely.)

Take Wendell Berry‘s advice: Know food, grow food, prepare food, know growers, learn production practice. These practices, when embraced by millions of people, can cumulatively reduce carbon emissions, oil consumption, water pollution and, not coincidentally, just might reduce the diseases of overeating.

In short, if we want farms to produce healthy food, we’re going to have to stop buying the unhealthy stuff. It’s going to cost more up front, but it may save our agriculture in the long run. Yes, as Berry said, eating is an agricultural act, but it’s a political, economic and ecological act, too.

Photos (c) courtesy Susan Wolfe, Lawrence, Kansas


5 Responsesto “Climate change already yielding food disruptions”

  1. Katie says:

    So stonefruit was absent from Kansas, too, huh?


    I visited IL north of St. Louis last year and asked the farmers where all the peaches were, and they told me that every last flower bud had fallen off the trees. One woman with a hobby farm took me over to her cherry, apricot, apple, nectarine, and peach trees and showed me. Sure enough…just…leaves.

    I couldn’t believe it.

    I’d seen plants thin with fruit, or some plants with and some plants without fruit, but it hadn’t occurred to me until I saw it with my own eyes that an entire acre full of plants could get 0% fruit.

    They said it happened to Missouri, too.

    And now I find out from you that it happened in Kansas.

    Please continue to keep us updated on climate-related local food disasters!

  2. ExPat Chef says:

    It was a lousy year. My local farmers were driving to Texas to buy peaches and resell, just to stay afloat. I bought the peaches from them, not the store.

    While you are adding up the savings by spending more upfront on food, don’t forget to add health care to the list. Obesity is linked to the major causes of death in our country. Better diet saves us money in the long run by reducing costs to society from obesity-related health problems, HALF of these obesity related medical costs are borne by taxpayers in Medicare and Medicaid expenses (International Journal of Epidemiology).

    Also, please let Bonnie know I added Ethicurean to the blogroll!

  3. Katie says:

    Gosh–2nd instance I’ve seen or heard of with KS farmers getting fruit from out of state to resell in a small-scale way.

    People I saw at a Kansas-City-area farmer’s market were selling peaches after Kansas’s season would’ve been over, anyway, and they had them from CO & ID. But they all got them from farmers they knew in those states, as far as I could tell.

    I was amazed at the farmer’s market there. Here in Minnesota, our “no rules against outside produce” farmer’s markets end up full of people importing completely commercial, big-ag, faraway tropical fruit & selling it in small stands.

    But in that KC-area one, there didn’t seem to be any rules forbidding outside produce, yet there were no stands like I see all the time in MN.

    Everyone there was simply importing relatively nearby foods from small producers they had personal connections to.

    I wondered if there was an official rule that was more complicated than our “all your stuff” rule at some of our markets up here, or if there truly were no such rules, but people were simply better-behaved there.

  4. Janet says:

    Hi, Katie,
    It certainly was more than Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. If you read the full article, a PDF at, you’ll see lots of graphics (which unfortunately don’t reproduce too well) that show rather dramatically the damaging freeze that spread through the middle of the country , from the Great Plains eastward. Also, my local farmers market is a producers-only market, but different markets have different rules.
    ExPat Chef, didn’t you see the recent news that people who are obese die younger and therefore save health-care costs? (I’m not joking.) Now there’s a health-care plan!

  5. Emily H. says:

    It was really difficult to find Ga. or S.C. peaches last year, too—so many were wiped out by the freeze. A few of the farmers at the local market I used to frequent in Atlanta also lost ALL of their blueberries, which were a huge source of income for them.