Changing Climate, Changing Food: Chocolate-Covered Bananas

I’m eating chocolate right now. Chances are high that if I’m at my desk late at night (which I was (am?) while writing this and preparing it for publication), I’ll be eating chocolate. I love chocolate. I particularly prefer very dark chocolates with a high cocoa content, and I’ve recently gotten very into single origin chocolates. Yes, I am turning into a chocolate hipster. A chocster? I’m not sure. Anyway, all I’m saying is that there’s something quite delightful about being able to really taste the difference between chocolates depending on region of origin and production method. This is partly the fault of evil people like SOMA¬†(Canadians, feel free to send me offerings of chocolate at any time).

Chocolate has always been a big part of my life. My father would get it as a treat sometimes when I was a kid, and we would savour those chocolate bars. Maybe not Charlie Bucket style, but close. I never wanted any other kind of candy, just chocolate, and in fact, ‘candy’ meant ‘chocolate’ to me for years, because what else would there be? We used to read the poetry excerpts inside Chocolove and then go look them up and read the rest, and this made the whole exercise vaguely educational.

I have a hard time imagining life without chocolate. At any given point, I’ll have several bars stashed in my desk, on the bedside table, in the hall secretary, and with the baking supplies. The house in Berkeley has its own stocks so I don’t have to ferry chocolate back and forth or worry about a supply gap. I’ve recently branched out into chocolate-covered cacao nibs, and I often have a bag of those around waiting for a nibbling. (Have you tried making chocolate chip cookies with chocolate-covered cacao nibs and browned butter? So delicious, my friends.) Hot cocoa is the soothing evening drink of my childhood, the thing I made on the stove in the near-dark, lit only by the flames licking up around the side of the pot, a sense memory so strong I can immerse myself in it when I close my eyes.

Yet, I’ve been repeatedly warned that I may very soon be facing my worst nightmare, courtesy of climate change. Thanks to shifts in regional growing conditions, producers are having trouble meeting demand for chocolate, and available supplies are shrinking. Prices are going up, and we’ll start feeling it soon. I suspect that it will start with climbing prices, and then adulterants in chocolate to stretch it further, and then maybe a day when chocolate is a thing that people talk about as a thing that once was, not a thing that is now.

There’s some debate over whether the crisis is really as bad as advertised; chocolate may not go extinct, but it could become very expensive and difficult to obtain, something available only to a few people. All of us could become Charlie Buckets, eating a single chocolate bar a year and trying to stretch it out over as long as possible in order to savour the experience, knowing that we wouldn’t have another until the next birthday.

But most people do seem to agree that chocolate is facing problems because of climate change.

Chocolate isn’t the only thing. Bananas, too, are struggling because of a fungal disease, changing climate, and new environmental pressures. There may come a time when these ubiquitous yellow fruits are in fact quite rare, to be treasured like a perfectly ripe avocado is in many parts of the US, rather than being allowed to brown and rot on top of the fridge. Banana bread, far from being something whipped up to use bananas before they go entirely to pieces, will be a rare treat, if the claims about banana shortages are to be believed.

Cacao and bananas aren’t the only things facing trouble because of the climate. Global food security in general is threatened by droughts, flooding, desertification, and severe weather across the world. Many of the foods threatened by the shift in the environment are not so easily replaced as chocolate and bananas. We can live without these things, although many of us would miss them sorely.

It’s staple foods that become worrying: what would we do without rice? Without beans? Now especially, in an era when bizarre food fads create crop imbalances like a sudden burst in the production of the latest alleged superfood to meet demand from the United States, there’s a very real risk of populations starving due to a combination of factors, courtesy of the West: first, imperialist pressures on food production to feed the West before dedicating space to growing crops for one’s own people, and second, climate change caused by Western abuse of natural resources.

We have killed our own cacao, our own bananas, even if we haven’t set foot in the fields.

What will we tell the next generation when they ask us about chocolate, about bananas? Will we produce a rare and expensive item from the grocery store and feed it to them to see their reaction, horrified when they’re utterly confused and perplexed by this alien food? Will we sigh and remember the glory days of something they can never have? Will we admit our own complicity in the terrible chain of events that led to the slow throttling of the food supply? Will we remember, and speak of, the millions who starved in an era when bananas and chocolate were plentiful?