Climate Mitigation and Adaptation in the Kitchen

White beads of pearl millet on a stalk
Millet – a crop we may see more of in coming years. (Photo Kurt Steuber via Creative Commons)

To combat climate change, we will need to both reduce emissions, but also adapt. Why is this? Well, even if we turned off all carbon emissions off today, a certain amount of climate change is still “baked in.” You can read about that science here. This means that, unfortunately, some human-caused climate change will continue to happen. And that climate shift will affect everything that we do – and to “weather the storm,” (pun intended) we will need to mitigate its effects in our daily lives.

Some of this adaptation will occur in the kitchen. There has been a lot of writing about the way we cook and what we cook as it relates to carbon emissions. I discussed this topic in the context of electric and gas cooking in a recent article for Greater Greater Washington. However, our surrounding climate affects how we do everything from certain cooking tasks to food storage to what we are able to realistically grow and eat.

Sejal Sukhadwala, a London-based food writer (and author of an excellent book, The Philosophy of Curry), recently asked a question on Twitter on this topic. Her tweet proposed a few things, rooted especially in the British experience and the recent heatwave there – for example, weather-dependent baking. I wanted to take the topic further. Hence, this post.

This topic could cover books and doctoral theses. However, I decided to think of a few things I could identify for a brief blog post. These are all predictions – or things that will be more common as climate change continues to affect our lives. (The science is, of course, continuously evolving on this urgent issue.)

  1. Better ventilation and cooling in kitchens. We are going to be dealing with more heat – and that also means that buildings will be hotter – sometimes to the point where air conditioning alone (separately complicated) is not going to cut it. Kitchens, already hot, can become dangerously so – especially for people who work in kitchens. In addition, many major food groups will be in demand, and I do not foresee weather-dependent menus becoming too common. Hence, we will need more and better ventilation and cooling to keep the temperature down in the kitchen. I imagine that this problem will get a lot of architectural and engineering attention over the coming years. But – also – we will need to consider what kind of changes we make in order to make that efficiency possible. Some things – like a wood-fired oven – will need a lot more surrounding infrastructure to be usable. I think a lot of these lessons can be learned from the past and from existing practices –many cultures have done some pretty neat things to ensure ventilation and cooling in hot climates.
  2. Changes to processed foods. Some ingredients will be harder to come by, and others will be more problematic to grow as the climate changes (which I cover below). This situation will happen with the climate change that is already locked in. One way that this shift will affect our food is what goes into the processed ingredients that most of us rely on to some extent – everything from the flour that gets milled to what happens in frozen meals to the components of spice blends and preservatives in canned vegetables. These changes will affect how we cook with the ingredients, what they taste like, and how available they are. For example, I imagine that we may see a shift to more amaranth showing up in processed goods as it is a fairly drought-resistant crop. Meanwhile, I suspect that we will start to see fewer things with apple products, including widely-used juice and vinegar, given the effects of the changing climate on apple production. Most of all, I think we need to be prepared for different tastes – which have varied throughout history! As sympathetic as I am when people are upset when preferred products change, this is something we should all be prepared for – and address when we cook and eat.
  3. Fewer water-intensive ingredients. Unfortunately, the amount of climate change that has been “locked in” will continue to affect rainfall – and not just in traditionally dry places. In many places, water-intensive ingredients like almonds and walnuts will go from just being environmentally awkward to economically and scientifically unfeasible. I expect, over the coming years, that many water-intensive ingredients will become scarcer and more expensive. There will also be pressure to use fewer of these ingredients, similar to the way that there is already pressure to consume less meat and dairy. (Though there is more scientific pushback there than with almonds or certain water-intensive plants.) Some common recipes will become less so – for example, the breadth of Jewish recipes that include almonds. Other times, substitutions will be quite common – for example, oat milk rather than almond milk.

    A part of me also hopes that we will see more cooking with some truly wonderful drought-resistant ingredients. Tepary beans, nopal cacti, lentils, millet, corn and black eyed peas all come to mind.

Of course, there are many more mitigation techniques that I could discuss here – I have not even scratched meat-eating or adjustments to when we do certain tasks. And, of course, we need to cut emissions, and that comes through the food system too, as well as how we cook. Mitigation is still a key part of our response though – and I hope that this post highlighted for you how kaleidoscopic, how varied this response will be.

2 Comments

  1. Krati Agarwal says:

    That’s an insightful read! Many people are so badly stuck in their food choices that now when prices have skyrocketed they are finding it hard to survive but couldn’t be bothered to change how they eat and cook.

    1. Thanks! Though I also wonder sometimes about how many people really can’t afford anything other than the cheapest thing, and when the cheapest thing is hit by climate change, what happens then?

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