Andrew Zimmern: If We Don’t Change Our Ways, We Risk Losing Coffee (And Other Foods We Love)

Andrew Zimmern is an Emmy-winning and four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef and writer who serves as curator and spokesperson for the food and climate programming of The Great Northern festival held in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He hosts the show “What’s Eating America on MSNBC and authors a newsletter on Substack called Spilled Milk to educate people about the U.S. food system, addiction in the restaurant industry and climate change. In this edition of Voices in Food, Zimmern talks about why we risk losing our beloved food and drinks within our lifetimes due to rising global temperatures and what we can do to save them.

Back in the ’60s, my mother was what you would now label “an activist.” With her, I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and the Black Panthers. We protested the Vietnam War and were active in the early days of the climate movement, before the Clean Water Act, and before federal legislations were passed to protect the environment.

Growing up as a white man living in America, the greatest country on Earth, I led a mostly self-centered life. I didn’t necessarily think that way then, but looking back, I can see that I felt that there was no existential crisis happening during my lifetime.

About 20 years ago, when I started traveling abroad for television, it was impossible to ignore what I was seeing. From pollution of inner harbors in Asian cities to river systems in Amazonia, everything was changing for the worse. Elders in the northernmost areas of Canada told me that 80 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to go outside. They didn’t have thermometers, but we looked up recorded history, and they were right. In Trinidad and Tobago, a conch diver told me he was the last one to dive because all the big trollers anchoring in the ocean wiped out the conch spawning grounds. I started to piece all this information together, and I became devoted to telling more of those kinds of stories for my shows (“Bizarre Foods” and “What’s Eating America”). So you can say I also became an activist, but not in a political “us vs. them, red vs. blue, left vs. right” way. It is more about making sense of where civics and politics overlap and doing the right thing for the community.

“Why am I talking about this now more than ever? I am 62 years old, I have an 18-year-old son. You get to a certain point in your life that you realize how truly fragile life is.”

Climate is changing every single component of our food system. In the Midwest, we had this cultural tradition of a Friday fish fry where food halls would convert to community events with lots of food, beer and music. We would pay $1-2 per person for all-you-can-eat fried fish, and the proceeds would go to a church or charity. The only decision we needed to make was which species of fish to eat— yellow perch, walleye, bluegill, etc. — they were all locally sourced. Recently, when I went back to my favorite fish fry in Milwaukee, the yellow perch (from Canada) was offered as a special for $32, and there was salmon and cod for $18 a plate. I learned from local experts that no yellow perch was left in Lake Superior. This is because the ice melts earlier in the season, while fish reproduction patterns have not evolved. Now, more predators are awake for longer seasons eating the fish eggs. Even if the fish are reintroduced as a species, they will die out the next year. In Apalachicola, there were once 45 oyster processing plants. Now, there is one plant and zero oyster farms. The rain that used to fall in the Gulf making the water more saline and productive oyster beds, is gone.

You could say, why not just eat other kinds of fish? It’s not realistic. Lakes and shallow waters around the world are experiencing the exact same thing. Until we change our laws to empower and subside fish farmers, the system won’t work. We also need time to allow for other species to replenish.

Droughts and heat waves have changed what we are eating and drinking today. The reason we are paying $35 per pound for farmed Ora King salmon from New Zealand is that there are no more reliable wild salmon fisheries left. Warm waters in the Gulf of Maine have caused lobster populations to dwindle, so a lobster roll now costs $35. The American (Homarus Americanus) blue-green lobster will now come from Canada.

Foods that were considered everyday items during my lifetime are now becoming expensive and luxurious. Economically, we have the lowest jobless rates, our economy has never been stronger, yet food prices are at an all-time high. If you dive into that piece of the equation, a lot of it relates to shrinking yields caused by the movement of rain and successive summers of drought in growing seasons.

And it is not just fisheries. A third of the Minnesota apple crop has disappeared over the last couple of years because heavy rains don’t allow the fruit to settle and ripen on the trees. We cannot even make juice or applesauce with them. I predict we will lose 25% of our tomatoes over the next two decades. You can also say goodbye to yellow Cavendish bananas. Diseases borne by bugs and dust threaten to wipe out orange trees. Invasive pests and temperature fluctuations are threatening cacao plants around the world. Coffee and chocolate production numbers have declined. Non-commodity coffee that cost a nickel when I first started drinking it is now $6 at Starbucks. It is even worse for wine. Grape growing and planting seasons are becoming more extreme, preventing the fruit from getting a hold of the vine. When the sugars don’t take root in the fruit, we have less wine. You will see the real impact in two years or so since wine production is cyclical. Trader Joe’s ‘Two Buck Chuck’ will be a thing of the past.

This story repeats all over the world, and it scares the heck out of me! As Americans, some of us will have to lose our rose-colored glasses when we see no bananas, apples, or fish in the supermarket. Our favorite foods are at stake of disappearing from our dinner tables, in our lifetimes!

We just have to point to the last four or five years to say, “The first time in my lifetime … I experienced this.” Remember the first few days of the pandemic when you ran into the supermarket after seeing scary pictures of empty shelves? In today’s world, everything is so fragile that the slightest ripple in our food chain will disrupt it immensely.

There are many solutions to address this, but if we don’t start investing now, it will be too little too late. We need legislation to help us with these issues we are refusing to confront. Aquaculture can loosen the pressure on wild fresh and saltwater fisheries so they will regenerate, but we need more no-take zones (areas that go unfished for a year or two).

We need to respect our democracy and create laws. Instead of being up in arms about making composting and recycling mandatory, those who can afford it should be paying for others, too. Some people have nasty words for that kind of government, but paying slightly more taxes will not really affect your lifestyle. It may save society as you know it. Those who don’t choose to support the greater good at a time when we have true existential threats are (insert your metaphor here) delusional.

Also, people themselves will have to start growing a percentage of their own food. I am trying to bring more awareness around this through my upcoming documentary series on PBS, “Hope in The Water.” At The Great Northern Festival in Minneapolis, where we celebrate all things winter with food, movies, concerts, and music, former White House chef Sam Kass and I hosted The Last Supper dinner, eating and drinking foods that are potentially threatened and had open conversations about how the climate crisis is impacting us directly. Think about the plate of food you are eating not being available to your grandchildren. Wild Alaskan salmon, Midwestern sweet corn and chocolate are all foods threatened by climate change.

The rising cost of food we see is simply a factor of availability. It’s economics 101: as supplies go down, prices go up. The average family in America has been priced out of food. Eating well in America is a class issue and is getting worse. It disproportionately affects people of color. It is a systemic genocidal issue when we are condemning a certain segment of society to poor outcomes or real existential danger.

Why am I talking about this now more than ever? I am 62 years old, I have an 18-year-old son. You get to a certain point in your life that you realize how truly fragile life is. I believe in this issue and am devoting my time to fighting for it more than anything else. If not now, when? If not me, who?

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