We've all heard about how climate change will require us to develop new, more sustainable systems for growing and harvesting our food, including different approaches to eating meat (or eating less of it entirely), renewed fishing practices that better maintain crucial ecosystems, and better means of growing our crops, from corn to wine grapes.
But less often mentioned in the Big Sustainability Conversation is one of the biggest staples of the Western diet: bread. Good ol' bread—that which makes a breakfast sandwich, or toast, or weed bruschetta. While we all see the problems with eating almonds in California during its critical drought or chowing down on bluefin tuna when its radically overfished, but it's harder to see how baguettes fit into the whole climate change equation.
Are our brioches and Fluffernutters also at stake as we microwave the Earth with our cow farts and Nutella?
Scientists are on it. Apparently, they won't be extinct, but they may taste just a little bit different. At least that's what the Sydney Morning Herald hypothesizes as part of a series about global warming called Climate for Change.
Alongside a photo of a stiff, crumbly, misshapen loaf of bread next to a lovely, shiny, fluffy one with a brilliant egg wash, Nicky Phillips—the Herald's Science Editor—writes: "This is what global warming will do to your loaf of bread." The loaf grown with today's grain is juxtaposed with a loaf baked with wheat that was grown in conditions with high levels of carbon dioxide—specifically, the levels "expected by mid-century if greenhouse gas emissions aren't reduced significantly."
For a project in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the Australian Grains Free Air CO₂ Enrichment facility (AGFACE) baked the bread to demonstrate the potentially major detriments to the quality of our grain crops that climate change could lead to, impacting wheat, lentils, and other basics of food pyramids around the world.
So … what's the difference? Why does this climate change bread look so crappy?
Glenn Fitzgerald of AGFACE says that the reason for the differences isn't quite as simple as "more carbon dioxide = bad." As it happens, many plants actually grow faster and yield more food in environments with higher CO₂ levels, but the grain that they produce contains less protein. These differing proteins can impact the elasticity of dough made with the grains, as well as the way that the bread rises.
Even more oddly, no one really knows why. But researchers are working on unlocking the science behind this discrepancy, and trying to engineer a means of reversing the loss of protein via selective breeding and genetics.
Although the team says that it could take more than a decade for a new trait to be worked into a grain variety, that time could be sufficient relative to the 35 years estimated until our poor loaves look like they've been scrimmaged with by Manchester United.
Even better, the increased yields postulated by high-carbon dioxide conditions could prove to be a benefit. But all of that would be contingent on the developments made between now and the projected era of sad toast.
Is any food worry-free when it comes to our environmental troubles? Maybe not. But when the going gets really tough, the tough will likely not be gluten-free for the sake of fashion.