[ These critical disaster safety efforts will be at risk if Trump eliminates the Climate Action Plan ]
Here’s something I’m going to require a lot of over the next four years: chocolate. Until quite recently, I haven’t been fussy about my politically motivated chocolate binges. I didn’t really care whether my fix came in the form of a bar, a brownie, or, you know, an IV drip, and I certainly didn’t think much about where the chocolate came from.
But this week’s guest on Bite, the Mother Jones food politics podcast, opened my eyes to a fascinating chocolate backstory. In her new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, food journalist Simran Sethi chronicles her trip to Ecuador, home of some of the world’s best cacao. Sethi discovers that Ecuadorian cacao beans are incredibly diverse; they come in all sorts of varieties, each with its own distinct characteristics. “It’s this tapestry of flavors that makes the country one of the top global producers of specialty cacao,” she says.
But as Sethi found out, that diversity is in danger. Cacao, she explains, is especially susceptible to disease. “Black pod rot, witches’ broom, frosty pod rot—they are some of the sinister-sounding fungi that, along with mirids, moths, and other insects, destroy up to 40 percent of the world’s cacao crop annually, with losses estimated at $2 to $3 billion,” Sethi writes.
In the first half of the last century, Ecuador’s farmers were sick of losing most of their cacao crop to fungi, so they did what any sensible farmers would do: They bred a variety that wasn’t susceptible to the most common diseases. In 1965, Homero Castro, a cacao agronomist in Naranjal, Ecuador, developed a hybrid pod that he called CCN-51 (short for Collección Castro Naranjal, on his 51st attempt to create a disease-resistant pod).
But Before Castro could patent CCN-51, Sethi writes, he was killed in a car accident, and the variety was accidentally released into the wild. Today, according to the USDA, more than a third of Ecuador’s chocolate comes from CCN-51 pods, and the variety has also spread to many other chocolate-producing parts of the world. It’s not hard to see why: In addition to resisting fungus, CCN-51 pods were also large, fatty, and easy to grow.
The problem, says Sethi, is that unlike some truly exceptional-tasting Ecuadorian cacao (she describes one as “a burst of violets: green stems, fragrant flowers”), chocolate made from CCN-51 is just okay. Sethi’s sample “tasted like chocolate, nothing more or less.” An Ecuadorian chocolate producer agreed, assessing CCN-51 as “not bad, but it’s not interesting.” For commercial-scale farmers, he said, that’s fine because they “don’t need something special for a Hershey’s bar.”
Which, of course, puts farmers in a bind. As another producer put it to Sethi, “On one side, you have a high-yield variety that gives you lots of chocolate with good chocolate flavor. On the other, you have a low-yield traditional crop: one that gives a cocoa with an incredible taste, the kind of thing craft chocolate makers dream about. The problem is, most times, farmers get the same price for both.” Another adds, “Farmers know CCN-51 is a productive variety” so they “wonder if they should risk their money on something that may or may not work.”
Chocolate experts caution that CCN-51 is poised to spread even farther; it’s not inconceivable that someday this just-okay variety may be the only chocolate that we know. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Sethi. Want to save the diversity of chocolate? Sethi shares a few of her top tips in this week’s Bite episode.
After spending years photographing wildlife, French photographer Eric Pillot turned his lens on creatures living in captivity. His project In Situ captures zoo animals held in an artificial world of concrete floors and painted backgrounds—and explores how natural beauty can sometimes transcend even the bleakest surroundings. Pillot has published two books of his stark animal photos.
These photos are among those included in the inaugural PHOTOFAIRS exhibition, which will be held in San Francisco between January 27 and January 29 at the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion.
Picture the perfect picnic day: It’s neither too hot nor too cold, neither too humid nor too dry. The sun is shining, and there’s little chance of rain. For many of our outdoor activities, these are the days we care about and plan for. And yet, in the last few decades of climate research, scientists haven’t spent much time researching these “mild weather” days.
“In standard climate science research, we either focus on changes in the mean climate—what is the average annual temperature globally and how does that change in time, or what is the average annual rainfall amount and how does rainfall amount change in a region—or we look at extreme weather and storms, so hurricanes or floods or droughts,” says Sarah Kapnick, a climate scientist at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But today, Kapnick, along with two colleagues at NOAA and Princeton University, have released the very first study on global shifts in “mild weather” over the next century, and the results are not looking good.
Using a climate simulation model to analyze mild weather days worldwide, the scientists found that today a person, on average, experiences 89 mild days—but by 2100 she will only experience 78. Moreover, though the latter half of the century will see the fastest decline in mild days, we will begin to see the effects within the next twenty years. The model projects that by 2035, our global average of Goldilocks days will fall by four. To put this into perspective, El Niño—one of the largest natural climate-changing events—only chips off one mild weather day per year from the global average.
Of course, these mild weather changes are not evenly distributed around the world. For example, the majority of Africa, as well as, parts of Asia, eastern Latin America, and northern Australia—regions most hard-hit by other studied climate change impacts—will also suffer the greatest losses in mild weather, upwards of 25 fewer days, over the next century. That isn’t to say that the US will ride through the upcoming decades unscathed. A table published along with the study shows exactly what key American cities should expect within the next twenty years. Take two examples: Miami, which currently experiences 97 mild weather days per year, will lose 16 of those days by 2035; DC, currently tallied at 81, will lose 7.
Ticking off a couple of days here and there doesn’t sound too bad when you’re planning for picnics or hikes. But, as Kapnick points out, mild weather days also affect critical economic activities, including construction, infrastructure projects, agriculture, and air and rail travel. Such shrinking and shifting of mild weather could lead to significant negative economic consequences, not to mention a threat to our global food supply. Even for the handful of regions around the world where mild weather is predicted to increase, there could be unexpected consequences. “People in sunny California know that just because you have sunny, lovely weather, mild weather, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good thing for your water resources,” says Kapnick.
Now that a mild-weather model exists, Kapnick hopes other scientists will build off of her team’s work. She says, “We have started with mild weather, but future work can look at other ranges of climate that interest people for specific purposes or activities.”
The most anticipated outdoor recreation event of the year just finished in Salt Lake City, Utah, where hundreds of outdoor brands from small business outfitters to industry pioneers like Patagonia and Black Diamond Equipment gathered to witness the cutting-edge in outdoor gear.
Yesterday on Capitol Hill, Representative Ryan Zinke appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to answer questions at his confirmation hearing to serve as Secretary of the Interior.