More Expensive or Unavailable: How Wild Weather Will Affect Your Favorite Foods

Man in baseball hat stands in apple orchard
A spring freeze and a hot, wet summer will translate into a challenging fall for New England orchards, says Daina Harvey, associate professor of sociology and anthropology.

Experts advise consumers to prepare for the expected ways climate change will affect the food supply chain.

Already a precarious endeavor, farming in an age of wild weather fluctuations has become more challenging, and growers and consumers will need to make adjustments to navigate the nation’s food system in the months and years ahead, according to experts.

"Most of what we have now were developed for taste and storage, not climate resiliency," said Daina Harvey, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology (above) who researches agrarianism and food geographies.

It takes most apple trees from seven to 10 years to produce fruit, making them a good barometer to document the effect of climate fluctuations over time, he said. New pests and viruses — such as fire blight — are on the rise, and if left untreated can spread swiftly through an orchard wiping out trees, he said.

Small New England orchardists using heirloom apples and those who are foraging or familiar with lost or abandoned orchards are most in tune with climate changes and extreme weather, including a freeze in mid-May, the hottest day on record in July and the August flooding. Growers and academic researchers are working on how to navigate a constantly changing climate and nurture more climate-resilient apples that are available in a greater variety. Meanwhile, farmers are using diverse strategies to hedge their bets on which aspect of any given season will be the worst: the heat, the cold or the rain.

"Historically, you had to prepare for maybe one of the three in a year. Now you might have to prepare for all of them in a season, sometimes within weeks of one another. Agriculture has always been uncertain, but it seems like it’s getting more and more so," he said.

One idea is to rethink the layout of traditional orchards to create more wild, less maintained space and take note of how wild apples, which typically grow from seed and create their own ecosystems on or around abandoned orchards, have thrived.

"Trees that were abandoned and that have now spread and done well without care might make good candidates for apple trees for the future," Harvey said.

"We have a food system that is productive, but not resilient; one or two significant events and it can disrupt the food chain."

Chris Staysniak, history lecturer

As farmers, orchardists and researchers consider how to adjust, Harvey and Chris Staysniak, a history lecturer whose research focuses on the environment, American food and food systems, said consumers also need to prepare for unexpected ways that climate change will affect the food supply chain, including paying more for favorite produce.

"In the future, at the consumer level, it will be only feasible for the middle or upper class to buy outside of the local season and the lower class will find food substitutes. People need to realize and understand this," Harvey said.

The availability of nearly any kind of produce at a grocery store regardless of local season is fairly new phenomena, Staysniak noted. Becoming more educated and experimental with food choices and recipes is a place to start. Another option: visiting different farmers markets for seasonal produce and more than one grocery store for specific items.

"We’re the product of an incredible supply chain that means we’re still always eating seasonally even if it’s someone else’s season," he said. "This has the effect of insulating consumers from the fact that food and farming and the environment are inexplicably linked. At the end of the day, farming is a low margin and precarious venture. A late frost can decimate blueberry bushes and peach trees. Farmers could do everything right and lose those crops to forces beyond their control." 

Staysniak encourages consumers to buy local as much as possible. Prices will be higher as it’s difficult for smaller farms to complete with industrial farms in the Midwest, he said.

"We have a food system that is productive, but not resilient; one or two significant events and it can disrupt the food chain," Staysniak said, adding the only constant moving forward is change. "It’s a seasonal endeavor and makes weather and climate change all the more real when you experience a change in local crops. Sometimes climate change can seem more abstract when looking 'over there' for the problem versus when it becomes a lived experience from your front porch."

It’s possible to reacquaint consumers with how food was viewed just a few decades ago, he said, but it's a consideration that challenges the modern paradigm of cooking, in which people determine the ingredients they need for a meal and buy them. In contrast, older recipes started with the ingredients people had — primarily those seasonally available — and built from there.

"As the weather gets more unpredictable each season, we need to make a commitment to do things just a bit differently," Staysniak said. "We need to remind ourselves that eating is an environmental and agricultural act. We need to do our part in keeping local farms afloat; if we’re not buying from them, they might not be here next season."