Still No Tomatoes: Is Global Warming to Blame?

Floods, fires, and scarcity of a favorite crop lead to the question of whether climate change is affecting our food



This is the time of the year when my family normally begs me not to serve any more tomatoes. Not this year. My CSA box has delivered only two pounds of small Early Girls a full six weeks into what we know as Tomato Season. By contrast, I had already processed 50 pounds for winter use by mid-September last year and had more than enough tomatoes to eat fresh.

Not all is weird in tomato land though. A chef from Connecticut called me yesterday to find out if he needed any special permission to buy 1,800 pounds of surplus ripe tomatoes from the farmer who regularly sells him 100 pounds per week. (The answer was no, but I was insanely jealous.) Abundant tomatoes in Connecticut but not in California? What's happening?

Few of these weather stories have been told as "food stories," yet the implications for food availability, pricing, and security are significant and widespread.

Major media reports on the Pakistan floods, fires and heat wave in Russia, and unusually hot weather on the East Coast have generally treated these occurrences as unrelated weather conditions. Perhaps they are. No modeling exists that could confirm or deny global climate change or other connected forces as being responsible for them.

At the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, on September 8, Jane Lubchenco, the eminent marine scientist who is serving as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), confirmed that we cannot tie these events to climate change. But Lubchenco, whose agency is responsible for daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, and climate monitoring, was clear that these types of disasters are what scientists have been arguing for years "could become normal patterns rather than once-in-a-lifetime" occurrences as carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere rise. Andy Revkin's piece about "weird weather" in The New York Times made the same point.

What does all this have to do with tomatoes? As someone who looks at life and times through a food-centric lens, I find the coverage of weather troubling. Few of these stories have been told as "food stories," yet the implications for food availability, pricing, and security are significant and widespread. The fires in Russia have been reported as likely to affect the wheat commodity market—making this, in other words, a "business story," even though tightening wheat supplies will affect millions of eaters around the world. And there's been little coverage outside California about our coldest summer on record. What's been good for strawberries (we've never had a longer strawberry season), has been terrible for tomatoes, garlic, and blackberries. Most wine grapes are in trouble; chardonnay grapes in many regions have become raisins.

According to The Chicago Tribune, the authors of a forthcoming book tentatively titled In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet, Hiroku Shimizu and Pierre Desrochers, argue that locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food. Food security can suffer if "you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong," they are quoted as saying. But aren't we essentially doing that now? Fifty percent of fresh produce consumed in the U.S. is produced in California, and farmers in the Salinas Valley have been wearing winter coats for the last three months. A three-day heat spell in August, which resulted in temperatures rising as much as 60 degrees in one day, from the low-40s to low-100s, shocked and killed promising seedlings of many crops.

Agriculture has always been variable and challenging due to weather conditions. And weather affects more than crops. But to deny the connections among climate variability, weather conditions, and food supplies is to ignore both short- and medium-term effects and to further reinforce the ignorance most Americans still have about where their food comes from and how it gets to their plates.