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Canada’s culinary identity faces uncertain future as climate shifts

food

A fragile legacy

Canada's rich and evolving culinary landscape is the focus of a new book, Speaking in Cod Tongues. Some of it is delicious, but some of it is disturbing – such as this excerpt about the effect of climate change on some of our most iconic foods

Warming water threatens to wipe out B.C.’s salmon stock.

Canada is a cold country and our cuisine is a cold cuisine. Much of our culinary history is grounded in preparing for and surviving winter, and many of our foods make sense only in the context of deep, prolonged cold that must be endured both in body and in spirit. Climate change threatens the balance between culture and cold that once led folk singer Gilles Vigneault to declare "mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver."

Several of our iconic foods are threatened in some way by the "one-two punch" of climate change: increasing temperatures coupled with more frequent extreme weather events. Canada, particularly in the North, is warming more quickly than most places on the planet, with higher winter temperatures and warmer overnight lows causing concern. Extreme weather is increasing as well and will have increasingly negative impacts on Canada's iconic foods. Losing those foods and the cultural capital that surrounds them would leave a noticeable hole in our culture. The impacts of climate change are wide-ranging but not entirely understood, yet a few examples suggest a frightening trend.

Let's begin with maple syrup. Standing in a sugar bush, it's hard to imagine that anything could threaten the giant and serene maple tree. Maple syrup production, however, is particularly sensitive to climate change.

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The tree roots themselves are vulnerable to freezing since they lie close to the surface of the soil and require a blanket of snow to protect them from the cold. In recent winters, that blanket has been less certain, and freeze-thaw cycles can coat the roots with an armour of damaging ice.

The maple syrup season requires a delicate balance of crisp, cold nights and warm, sunny days to draw the sap from the roots. This stable weather is no longer a guarantee.

The syrup season itself, lasting only four to six weeks, requires a delicate balance of crisp, cold nights and warm, sunny days to draw the sap from the roots. This stable weather is no longer guaranteed to arrive, and in the past fifteen years syrup production has fallen as spring temperatures have risen. Projections suggest that production will decline by about one-fifth in the next four decades in Canada, more in some southern regions.

Extreme weather is also a threat, even to something as solid as a grand old maple tree. The 1998 ice storm damaged wide swaths of forest in Quebec and Ontario, destroying 12.5 per cent of the maple taps in Eastern Ontario and dropping syrup production by 25 per cent. Maple syrup itself won't vanish, and the industry can move north over time, since 17 per cent of Quebec's forests are sugar maple and only a tiny portion is used for syrup production.

However, the beloved landscape of small farms with sugar bushes and cabanes à sucre located close to major centres such as Montreal will struggle with these new climatic conditions, fraying the cultural fabric that surrounds our most iconic food. This would be a great economic and cultural loss, and if those small farms cannot survive without the early season return from maple syrup their contributions of fresh local product to the food system will vanish as well.

Maple syrup might be the best known of Canada's iconic foods, but several other economically and culturally important products face an uncertain future as the climate shifts. Beef might be much more difficult to produce in Alberta as it becomes both hotter and drier. Water shortage will be the principal impact of climate change on Alberta's beef industry since cattle require a great deal of water, and that water must be clean if they are to gain weight.

Contaminated water can put a cow off its feed, and in today's markets larger cows provide the meat marbled with fat most prized on many kitchen tables. However, declining snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and declining rainfall threaten both fresh water and ground water in Alberta, challenging cattle production directly and indirectly through the rising cost of feed grain production.

Cattle graze on dry land west of Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Adapting to this second impact can be addressed by switching from grain-fed beef to pasture-fed beef, but retailers and consumers often object to the yellow fat produced by cattle finished entirely on grass. The flavour of grass-fed beef is quite different from that of grain-fed beef, and is not immediately embraced by the public, though forage beef is healthier and has less of a climatic footprint. In the long run, forage beef is certainly more sustainable than grain-fed beef, both in environmental impact and in overall water use, so in the future we will likely have to pay more for Alberta beef and get used to it tasting more like, well, beef.

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Beef producers might have to go back to raising beef on the small-scale farms that once defined the industry. The predicted scarcity of both the fresh water and the nutritious foods required to finish cattle can be mitigated in part by decreasing the number of cattle raised in Alberta. In some ways, this result is both healthier and more ecologically friendly, but it will provide economic challenges to Alberta's beef industry and might well end the numerous barbecue pits in the province.

The impact of climate change doesn't stop at our plates; what we pour into our glasses is also at risk.… Temperature and water supply are critical for all wine production, and changes in them pose risks to icewine production. Growers of icewine grapes will have to wait longer into the winter for the necessary cold to freeze the grapes, and this extra time on the vine increases evaporation and predation by birds and rodents.

Icewine grapes are harvested in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Growers of icewine grapes may have to wait longer into the winter for the necessary cold to freeze the grapes as a result of climate change

On the bright side, wine regions in Quebec and Nova Scotia might have warm enough summers to begin production of icewine grapes, though these regions will still be marginal since they will be prone to extreme winter events. In regions such as Niagara and the B.C. Interior, longer waits for harvest and the increased likelihood of vine-damaging storms will punish established producers, and both extreme cold and exceptional warmth can damage grapes and vines.…

The most serious threat of climate change to Canada's culinary identity goes beyond declines in production and increases in disruption. B.C. salmon, our most important iconic food in the west and the base upon which both indigenous foodways and settler foodways were built, could vanish with warming water. As the child of a fishing family, I find this deeply upsetting; if British Columbia loses its salmon, then many of us will lose a part of ourselves.

The particular threat is to the salmon's anadromous nature. Salmon live most of their lives in the ocean, but they begin and end their lives in fresh water. And in both the ocean and the rivers, they face temperature changes, and in the rivers in particular they also face reduced summer flows, increased winter flooding, and greater sedimentation.

Human impacts don't help the situation. Rivers must provide water for electricity, human habitation, and agriculture. They carry far too much waste and are mined, dammed, and stripped of cooling vegetation. Vancouver sits on one of the greatest river deltas in the world, yet the Fraser River is barely on the radar of most Vancouverites, save as an irritating barrier to traffic flow. We might love our salmon, but we don't love our rivers, and in the long run our love of the fish might not be sufficient to overcome our damage to their habitat.…

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Leaping Salmon, lithograph by Pierre Jacques Smit, 1896.

The long-term projections for Pacific salmon are extremely poor. Although the salmon's fate will ultimately rest on the global success or failure to control climate change, in the short to medium term British Columbians need to love their rivers. Rivers and streams can be shaded with vegetation to provide calm, cool water, and wetlands can be restored to improve habitat. In the future, water use in British Columbia will need to take salmon into account, and forestry practices must protect streams.

The salmon is a resilient fish that will thrive if given the slightest chance; there is a stream near my house in East Vancouver, little more than a drainage ditch really, that thanks to a little effort now sports a salmon run for the first time in nearly a century. It is odd to watch these fish splash past parking lots and industrial buildings, but their presence gives hope that it isn't too late to save them.

It is too early to say with certainty how climate change will impact Canada's cuisine. The worst-case scenarios above could be balanced by longer growing seasons and an influx of crops never before part of the Canadian culinary experience. On the Gulf Islands in the southwest corner of British Columbia, I found farmers experimenting with new crops such as tea, olives, and even pomegranates. Our wine regions might become better suited to the more tender reds, and production in the North might rise, reducing the chronic food insecurity in our remote communities. However, climate change is only one part of the larger story. There are other potential challenges to Canada's cuisine.

Excerpted from Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey, © Lenore Newman, published by University of Regina Press.

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