Six foods that climate change is going to ruin

Some of the most common crops, like corn and coffee, are already suffering as the Earth warms

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 6, 2023 4:57PM (EST)

Canvas bags filled with food crops (Getty Images/Shaiith)
Canvas bags filled with food crops (Getty Images/Shaiith)

We don't live in an agrarian society anymore, at least not here in the United States. Because few of us live in proximity to farmers, most Americans rarely consider the factors that go into producing the staple crops we consume every day — things like corn, wheat and rice. 

But though industrial agriculture has honed these crops into mass-produced, undifferentiated grains, they are grown on a planet whose climactic conditions are increasingly unpredictable. Indeed, as climate change intensifies, food scarcity is guaranteed to become more prevalent — even for basic staple crops like these. 

Besides supply chain breakdowns, heat waves and rising sea levels, scientists cannot fully anticipate how the Earth's ever-rising temperature will impact every aspect of the environment. Agriculture is a science of balances — just the right kinds of minerals in the soil, the ideal amount of sunshine and precipitation — and global warming throws so many new variables into the mix that the most predictable thing about it is its unpredictability.

"What is needed is a radical transformation of food systems, localizing them as much as possible, and supporting crop diversification through agroecology and other progressive approaches."

"The full impact of climate change on the global food system is complex," Marie Cosquer, Advocacy Analyst on Food Systems and Climate Crisis for Action Against Hunger, wrote to Salon. Even though the impact of climate change will not be uniform across all agricultural sectors, the problem is still serious enough that everyone who produces food should be concerned. "What is needed is a radical transformation of food systems, localizing them as much as possible, and supporting crop diversification through agroecology and other progressive approaches," Cosquer says.

Unless that happens very soon, there are some ways in which we can definitely expect climate change to alter what we eat. Here are some of the everyday crops that will be affected by those alterations — and which, in turn, will shift what you can eat.

Coffee arabica
Roasted Coffee Arabica BeansRoasted Coffee Arabica Beans (Dasril Roszandi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)Image_placeholder

If you rely on a cheap cup of joe to get you through the day, hold on to your mug.


"Coffee arabica is known to be specifically vulnerable to climate change impacts," Dr. Roman Grüter, Life Sciences faculty at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, told Salon by email. "Future suitability is going to be decreased due to sensitivity to high temperatures. Many crops are going to be negatively affected by extreme events (linked to climate change), such as long periods of drought, heat waves, strong rains etc."


This kind of climate chaos won't fully eradicate coffee, but it will undoubtedly make it more expensive, which may affect your ability to drink it as much. Indeed, botanists already fear that wild coffee may go extinct without conservation efforts.

CornCorn (Getty Images/Edwin Tuyay/EyeEm)Image_placeholder
In a 2021 paper in the scientific journal Nature Food, researchers created simulations based on the assumption of that farm managers would not alter their practices to accommodate climate change. The simulation was done this way "deliberately," in order to "to isolate the climate signal in order to understand processes and trends," Dr. Jonas Jägermeyr from Columbia University Climate School and NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies wrote to Salon.
Their projections were sobering: "Maize/corn is affected more negatively than wheat, because corn cannot benefit from higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations in the same way wheat can."
Because the US has an incredibly corn-dependent agricultural food system, this could have all kinds of repercussions. Corn is grown for biofuels; used as sweetener in sodas, ketchup and all kinds of food products vis-a-vis high fructose corn syrup; or consumed on its own in recipes or on the cob.

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WheatWheat (Getty Images/AIMEN SAKHRI/500px)Image_placeholder
Wheat and maize are both staples, but they have very different fates in the era of man-made climate change. The reason has to do with how they photosynthesize.
There are multiple chemical pathways via which plants turn the sun's energy into their own energy; two of these pathways are known as C3 crops and C4 crops. Most plants use C3 photosynthesis, meaning that the first compound they produce has three carbon atoms. Those plants which use C4 photosynthesis, however, produce compounds with four carbon atoms.
The two types of crops react differently to an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide in it, as our world is rapidly becoming.
"Wheat and other C3 crops (as opposed to C4 crops such as maize) benefit from CO2 in the atmosphere much more and in higher latitudes high-emission climate change scenarios can lead to crop yield increases in the models," Jägermeyr wrote to Salon. He added that their models, though thorough, cannot anticipate factors that could diminish wheat crops but were not "represented in an appropriate way" such as pests, diseases, droughts and floods.
RiceRice (Getty Images/Chadchai Ra-ngubpai)Image_placeholder

Rice has the dubious distinction of both contributing to global warming — an estimated 12% of global methane emissions come from rice production — while simultaneously being a major victim of climate change. As temperatures rise, droughts become more frequent, floods worsen and typhoons become increasingly severe, rice crops are expected to take a major hit.


That said, as with all of these crops, there is some regional variation. For instance, South Sudan might become a hub of rice production; the country  has suffered from floods due to increasing temperatures, and Cosquer says her organization "stepped in and taught farmers to grow a new crop — rice — which flourishes in water. Now, men and women alike now own their own rice farms and sell this crop in their communities."


The future of rice could mean more of it is grown in South Sudan, and less in other regions known for rice production today.

AlmondsAlmonds (Getty Images/BURCU ATALAY TANKUT)Image_placeholder
During the summer of 2021, a historic drought struck the western United States so hard that an almond shortage ensued. California, after all, produces roughly 80% of the world's almonds, and the drought was so severe that farmers began uprooting hundreds of acres of their crops so they could salvage what they could.
Because almonds demand extensive irrigation all year long, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change because their crops will increasingly demand more water even as the water supply plateaus or drops.
Citrus Fruits
Lemon FruitLemon Fruit (Getty Images/Brzozowska)Image_placeholder
If you love the sweet, tangy flavor of oranges, lemons and limes, there is bad news. Citrus crops of all kinds are expected to take a hit from climate change. In the words of Jägermeyr: "Crops show largest losses in lower altitudes in topical and subtropical systems that are already warmer and thus closer to specific temperature limits of certain crops."
While this does not mean that crops in colder regions will not suffer, they are generally not as sensitive to major temperature fluctuations.
"In higher latitudes, say breadbaskets along the Canadian border, Northern Europe, Russia and northern China, moderate warming has less severe effects and in some cases can even lead to potential yield gains," Jägermeyr says.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Carbon Emissions Citrus Climate Change Coffee Corn List Maize Rice Wheat