Justin Mott/The New York Times

A rice grower in Pa Pua, Laos, scoops snails from his rice paddy on March 28, 2008. Rice is a key crop that could exacerbate climate change if its agricultural production does not become more sustainable.

April 29, 2021

‘Our Changing Menu’ Brings Climate Consciousness to the Dinner Table

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The days of drinking coffee on the way to work or school may be numbered — experts warn that climate change has the power to deplete the production of this much beloved beverage, in addition to many other fan-favorite foods.

A book written by a group of Cornellians — Prof. Emeritus Michael Hoffmann, entomology, and Prof. Danielle L. Eiseman, communication, along with Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, M.S. Ed. ’84 — called “Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need” was released on April 15. Through this book, the group hopes to bring attention to how the food chain is affected by climate change and create a social movement battling climate change driven by food. 

“This book is meant to be a celebration of food,” Eiseman said. “There is no villain in this story; we are not pointing fingers at someone else along the food chain.” 

Eiseman said that the fight against climate change can start at the dinner table. 

“Food can be a great talking point,” Eiseman said. “Times when we share meals with other people are perfect for raising your voice and talking about food and climate change.” 

Grounded in numerous scientific reports, as well as reviewed by over 60 experts, “Our Changing Menu” examines complex relationships between the food supply chain and climate change for each part of a typical dinner menu — salads, main courses, sides, desserts and beverages.

The book also contains interviews with people on the frontlines of food production, such as farmers, distillers, food factory managers, chefs and scientists across different genders and geographical locations. 

“We wanted to put human faces along with the science, in order to tell a more compelling story,” Koplinka-Loehr said. “These interviews highlight how climate change affects people in the food industry personally, professionally and financially, as well as the steps they take to adapt to their new realities.” 

Hoffmann said the main issue he has had to overcome in communicating the urgency of climate change is the psychological distance between his audience and the impending dangers of climate change. 

“Audiences don’t necessarily care about events that are going to happen in the year 2100, or melting glaciers in Greenland, as [these problems] are not relevant to their daily lives,” Hoffmann said. “However, as we all eat, and we all drink, drawing that connection makes climate change more relevant to the general public.”

According to Hoffmann, record-high temperatures and other effects of climate change severely threaten the food supply chain, and could result in dramatically different meals and beverages in just a few decades.

Rice, a staple food for more than half the world’s population, is a prime example of the discrepancy between dietary needs and climate-friendly choices. While it is a necessary source of nutrients, rice is a very water-intensive crop. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warns that unless agricultural practices improve, water scarcity and high temperatures could reduce rice production in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam by about 50 percent before the end of the century.

The changing climate could also alter many students’ source of caffeination — coffee. Researchers predict that with continued climate change, the world’s coffee production area will likely be cut in half by 2050.

“Melting glaciers are bad enough, but the loss of coffee is downright terrifying,” Hoffmann said. 

A scoop of coffee beans.
Rising global temperatures could potentially decrease coffee yields across the globe (Toh Gouttenoire/The New York Times).

Though this book paints quite a grim picture of the future state of the world’s dinner plates, it offers solutions to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change on food production. 

According to Hoffmann, scientists worldwide are developing crop varieties that are more resilient and improving predictive models to help food growers know what to expect for the future. Farmers are adopting water, soil, waste and pest management practices that reduce risk to crops and increase resilience, while food industries are also stepping up by reducing energy consumption in their factories. 

Individuals can also make small steps to decrease their carbon footprint by changing what’s on their plate. For instance, Eiseman recommended cutting back on meat, since its production requires the use of larger quantities of land and water compared to plants.  

Eiseman also recommended whole foods  — foods that have not been refined or have had ingredients added to them — over processed foods.

“Do plenty of research into the whole foods that you buy, and identify producers who are transparent about their manufacturing processes and practice climate-smart methods,” Eiseman said. “If you purchase processed foods, looking into sustainability statements of those corporations can be very useful in making climate-smart choices.”

Beyond making more sustainable choices for one’s dinner menu, individuals can also be conscious of the environmental impact of other purchases they make.

“Don’t buy things just because they are cheap and unless you absolutely need them, and try to buy things that cause less waste and last longer,” Eiseman said.

Along with suggestions on how to include climate-smart practices in one’s daily life, “Our Changing Menu” is accompanied by an interactive website that offers resources to help readers understand the causes and impacts of climate change.