Climate change seems to be in the media regularly these days. There are stories in the United Nations’ reports about climate change, and President Obama has announced a two-pronged plan: attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events. And recently he requested $1 billion in the 2015 budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure. Given the East Coast’s experience with Hurricane Sandy, this is hard to argue against.
A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that, as the climate changed, the yields of three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice, and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns. The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.
Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana, which most of us buy at the grocery store, is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus. You might say that this is alarmist nonsense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out. However, you would be wrong.
It happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel, which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten. These bananas were reportedly superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety. This is an example of the risk of cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable — the same sort of mass production technique that allowed the potato blight to be so widespread in Ireland, leading to famine and horrible losses of life.
Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify — something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.
Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana with one of the hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States? Will we need to find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice, and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted, but less well-known super foods, such as quinoa, freekeh, or teff?
Time will tell, but one thing seems certain: greater diversity leads to greater resilience. This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address, but proper farm planning and market education may help prepare for potential changes.
Arthur Siegal is a partner at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss, and is a regular contributor to DBusiness.com and michigangreenlaw.com.