Chiles and Climate Change
I’ve never been a fan of super spicy foods, which may explain why the book Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail sat on my shelf for so long. But when I looked at the back again and realized that it also had something to do with climate change, I decided to pick it up.
I’m glad I did because it’s a fascinating book. The authors had decided they wanted to look at climate change through the agricultural lens, and even more specifically, through the lens of chiles. They settled on chiles not only due to a love of spicy foods but because chiles are so versatile. They’re used as a “spice, vegetable, condiment, colorant, medicine, pest repellant, preservative, weapon.” (p. xxiii)
To learn how chiles were being impacted by the changing climate, the authors traveled to many places and met many farmers, listening and learning as much as possible. Here are a few things I gleaned while reading.
A problem decades in the making
Chasing Chiles was written in 2009, when Hurricane Idea (the previous one, not this year’s Ida) impacted many farmers and others in Mexico and along the eastern coast of the United States. And while individual hurricanes may not be a direct result of warming temperatures, they’re likely exacerbated by changing weather patterns.
And the changes to the global temperature have not happened overnight. This has been going on for many years now, and even thirteen years ago, while the authors were writing the book, many of the people they interviewed had already been seeing changes for years.
It was a good reminder that for many people, the question hasn’t been, “Is climate change real?” They know it is because they see it first-hand. The question for them is how to adapt – if they even can.
Another eye-opener in the book was realizing just how many problems farmers face. After all, climate change encompasses much more than the warming of the atmosphere.
Water is one problem. Places experiencing drought don’t have enough water, while those who get hammered by storms have too much water all at once, leaving their harvest drowned and rotting. And some places may get water but at the wrong time, so their plants don’t get what they need at the right stage of development.
Water has also become a political problem, and not the only one. When such a resource becomes scarce, governments have to decide who gets priority access to the water, and while we all need food, we also all need water, so the priority doesn’t always go to agriculture.
Then there are pests. Storms may blow in insects that farmers and plants aren’t accustomed to and don’t know how to deal with. Or warmer and/or wetter conditions may allow pest populations to explode, causing more damage to crops.
It’s not only pests that can migrate, either, but also plant diseases. And if a farmer has been focusing on only a single type of crop, all of it could get wiped out by a single disease.
Importance of preserving biodiversity
Faced with many challenges, biodiversity becomes even more important. Even looking only at chiles, the authors heard how certain types of chiles did better with less water, others with more water; some could resist diseases better than others; and so on.
But biodiversity matters for more than that – it’s also a matter of taste. Big agriculture has gotten us used to eating just a few varieties of foods, and most of the time, we may not realize how much we’re missing.
With that in mind, I was fascinated to learn about Slow Foods USA and the Ark of Taste. Per the website, this is a “living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction. By identifying and championing these foods, we keep them in production and on our plates.”
Looking at the catalog in the U.S. Ark of Taste is fascinating, and it brought a whole new dimension to food in this country. Names like Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad tomato, Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean, Livingston’s Golden Queen Tomato, and Sheepnose Pimiento are so evocative and descriptive that it makes me want to learn more – which, I suppose, is the point.
Chiles are only one example
The book has many interesting facts about chiles of all kinds and even includes quite a few recipes. But it also makes clear that while chiles are impacted by changing weather, they’re not alone.
All of our growing practices are facing challenges due to climate change. Sometimes this means being able to grow new things now that an area is warmer, but too often, it means the traditional foods and ways of doing things are at risk.
Unfortunately, addressing this doesn’t have a simple answer, but the authors offer a few ideas. Explore and support diversity in local foods – farmers’ markets are great for this. Listen to and respect the wisdom of those growing our foods. And perhaps most important, especially with an election a few months away, vote for those who take climate change seriously and will try to reduce the negative impacts. Good advice all around.