Hunger pangs

 

Here in western Colorado, we usually have great food year-round. Local farmers grow squash, peppers, tomatoes and corn, and their orchards produce cherries, apples and peaches. Cattle and sheep fatten in pastures. In the last few years, though, weird weather has affected agriculture more and more often. Hard frosts murder fruit blossoms in May, grape vines wither in blistering Julys, oddly warm winters bring hordes of ravenous August grasshoppers.

Though this increasingly erratic climate hurts farmers and ranchers, most of us consumers can shrug off the impacts. If our local fruit fails, we go to the supermarket and buy cherries from Washington state. If early greens get frostbit, we eat packaged salads from California. If pasture grass dries up and local meat gets too pricey, we fall back on corn-fed steaks from the Midwest.

For the Native people who live in the isolated communities of Alaska's Far North, however, the connection between climate and food is much more direct, as Elizabeth Grossman writes in this issue's cover feature. For millennia, Natives were largely self-sufficient, thanks to a bounty of wild foods – whale, walrus, seal, moose, caribou, salmon, berries, sea vegetables. But climate change is hitting Alaska at a rate double that of the Lower 48, and, as sea ice thins, permafrost melts and migration patterns change, hunting and fishing have become much harder and more costly. When subsistence hunts fail, the villagers' only option is imported food, which is extremely expensive because it's transported so far, and less nourishing because it's highly processed for a long shelf-life. That creates a whole chain of negative consequences, weakening cultural traditions as well as physical health.

What's happening in these Arctic villages foreshadows a future of increasing disruptions in climate, leading inevitably to disruptions in food supply. Alaskan Natives – and all of us – are edging ever closer to a future foreseen by the acerbic writer T. Coraghessan Boyle. His 2000 novel A Friend of the Earth describes a worn-out California in 2025, ravaged by climate change, where it rains constantly and the foods people once ate are no longer available. Junk food has largely replaced fresh nutritious ingredients. "Now people crave meat and fish and broccoli, sweet potatoes, chard, wheat germ, the things they can't get the way they used to," Boyle writes, "and forget the Ho-Ho's and Pop Tarts and Doritos Extra-Spicy Meat-Flavored Tortilla Chips – that crap they can't give away." Healthy food is just one of the things we'll lose as our climate spins out of control. Boyle's vision is bleak, but it may well become reality for all of us, no matter where in the West, or in the world, we live.