A RECENT article in the Montreal newspaper La Presse quoted growers as claiming that within a few years Canada would be a larger producer of cranberries than New England.
That the article was written in French only pointed up the hurtfulness of the boast. Canada is already the biggest harvester of lobster, that other quintessential symbol of New England — even if the Pilgrims regarded it as little more than trash fish, unworthy of a place of honor at the original Thanksgiving table (the only sure items at which were deer and wildfowl, according to Kathleen Curtin and Sandra Oliver’s “Giving Thanks”). Bad enough already that Wisconsin produces more cranberries than Massachusetts. Must we cede to Canada those too-tart, hard-to-love, health-giving remnants of a time when New England agriculture had national significance?
Well, yes. Cranberries and any number of Thanksgiving Day staples are probably headed north thanks to global warming, as Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, told me recently. Dr. Epstein looks at the future, and it’s not so hot for native foods, or at least not for those that grow in the United States.
The present isn’t so great either. Many problems for food crops, Dr. Epstein said, are “nonlinear,” meaning that we don’t have to wait for permanent flooding of the Cape Cod cranberry bogs and the disappearance of expensive coastline. Long before that, salinization of groundwater from rising sea levels could make the bogs inhospitable to freshwater crops.
If you’re one of those who puts cranberries and whole oranges into the food processor for foolproof homemade cranberry sauce, you can be confident that you’ll still have access to United States-grown oranges, even if they don’t come from storm-crossed Florida. The United States Department of Agriculture last month predicted that Florida, the country’s largest citrus producer, would have its smallest crop in more than 17 years, because of recent hurricanes and hot weather. Soon enough Georgia might be changing the names of all its Peachtree Streets to Orange Groves.
The crust for your pie might principally be coming from Canada — in the same report, the Agriculture Department predicted a drop in wheat production, also because of weather — and the pecans for the filling could come from, say, the Appalachian forests of Virginia and Pennsylvania as they start to resemble sere Texas more than the rainy Eastern seaboard. Forests are in trouble, as snowpacks melt and stop nourishing them, and insect-deterring resin under pine bark dries up, leaving trees vulnerable to bark beetles, which now stay the winter, thanks to newly hospitable climes.
Sorry about the native chestnut, now making such a promising comeback in those Appalachian forests after decades of breeding with blight-resistant varieties to recreate an almost all-American strain. American chestnuts have a lovely, soft, floury texture — perfect for stuffing — and a sweet, delicate flavor. It’ll be back to Chinese chestnuts, the mealy, low-flavor kind — unless you are able to find a source for Italian and French chestnuts, the ones with real flavor, and are willing to pay premium prices for them. But don’t worry about the cost: they’re probably doomed too.
Same for the pumpkin for the pie and the string beans for the canned-onion-ring casserole, as opportunistic weeds and pests move into disrupted climate areas and wreak havoc with growing cycles and yields.
Most of these scenarios are fanciful, perhaps decades or even centuries away. But North American agriculture is being affected today, for reasons that don’t get much attention. Winter and nighttime temperatures are going up twice as fast as overall global warming, making for prolonged growing seasons and heat that can give pests a foothold. Higher carbon-dioxide concentrations stimulate the growth of weeds, and result in higher carbohydrate-to-nitrogen ratios in plants, making insects devour more plant material to get protein-building nitrogen. Damage to crops from weather extremes, aggressive weeds and voracious pests is a fact of the present.
While we worry about our agriculture moving north or out, we often lose track of the real losers in the game of agricultural checkers — Africa and South America, where droughts give rise to locusts and aphids and white flies, which in South America are injecting viruses into staple crops like beans and tomatoes.
To the rescue come genetically modified seeds that resist drought and ever-more-voracious pests, and countries less squeamish than we about using them and the herbicides the crops will still need. (Namby-pamby organic standards will be a thing of the past, or relevant only for those even richer than consumers who can afford to support them today.) Let’s hope that we have plentiful, side-effect-free drugs to counter the carcinogenic effects of increased pesticide residue. And that we can enact and enforce international food-safety regulations that will keep confined animals away from lettuce processors, so we don’t get the everything-green panic that seemed certain to follow the spinach panic of last summer.
Politically correct food is one thing (and a good thing). Global-warming-altered food is another, and a concept to add to our worry list. Thanksgiving, that most food-centered and nationalistic of holidays, might be a time to think again about how food is being grown where you live and what you can do about it. You might even dip a finger into environmental advocacy — after, of course, buying a share in a community-supported agriculture farm near you, to help a local farmer get through one more long, income-free winter.
You could start by giving thanks that you can still buy Cape Cod (and, O.K., Wisconsin) cranberries, Florida oranges and the last of the season’s romano green beans, the wide, meaty kind that seem to give a final burst of sweetness before giving up to hard frost. And that you have the reliable sweetness of buttercup and banana squash to look forward to all winter. . .
Oops! Forgot about maple syrup for the squash. Well, we like our Canadian friends, don’t we? Enough to give them a monopoly when New England warms up? Be sure to look for grade B, the darker kind that makes any gathering truly sweet and adds character besides. Maybe enough, along with a sugar rush, to give those gathered new environmental resolve.