Quantcast
Food

Ulrike Schmid / StockFood Creative / Getty Images

Black Truffles Imperiled by Climate Change

By Marlene Cimons

Scientist Paul Thomas won't forget the first time he ripped into a package of truffles he ordered from France after his own attempts to forage for this delicacy in the UK had failed. "Once I opened the packet, the aroma filled my house," Thomas said. "They flavored everything in our fridge. I was hooked."


Thomas can't get enough of the ugly but intensively flavorful fungi. He cultivates them. He cooks with them. He even helps organize Napa Valley's yearly truffle festival. Thomas, an academic in the department of natural sciences at the University of Stirling, has been studying truffles since the early 2000s. Much to his horror, his most recent research suggests that this prized gourmet treat—specifically Tuber melanosporum, a species of black truffle—may vanish from southern Europe by the end of this century. The reason—as is the case with many foods today—is climate change. Heatwaves, drought, forest fires, pests and diseases threaten to eradicate truffles.

For those who have never experienced the exquisite pleasure of tasting one, 18th century French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin described the truffle as "the diamond of the kitchen"—perhaps because of both its flavor and its cost. The threatened species of black truffle typically sells for around $600 for a pound, according to the study.

Tuber melanosporum, a species of black truffle. Michel Royon

"Yes, expensive but worth it," said former Washington, D.C. chef Colin Potts. "Their aroma and flavor of earthiness can't be matched by any other ingredient." A world without truffles, Potts said, "would be a culinary disaster—we would lose one of the greatest food experiences."

Study co-author Ulf Büntgen of Cambridge University, who previously found that drought can severely hamper truffle growth, joined with Thomas to forecast the effects of climate change. Like droughts, heatwaves can be fatal for truffles, "and the duration, frequency and intensity of such events are increasing due to climate change," Thomas said.

"In this paper we primarily focus on summer temperatures and precipitation and show that because of increases in the former and decreases in the latter, truffle production will decline," Thomas said. "The truffles are initiated in late winter and slowly grow over the summer months before maturing in winter. Consequently, drought over the summer months hampers truffle development." Their findings were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

A sliced black truffle. Daieuxetdailleurs

Researchers gathered data on more than three decades of truffle production in Italy, France and Spain, and compared it with data on temperature and precipitation to predict the future impact of climate change. "The results were extremely surprising in their severity and speed of impact," Thomas said. "We have cultivation sites in Spain and France, and we now know that these will have a difficult future." Climate change could wreak havoc on black truffles grown in the Périgord region of France, for example, which are particularly sensitive to heat and drought in late spring and summer.

Thomas said there likely still may be areas where the weather remains favorable enough to grow black truffles. Furthermore, "some of the impacts of climate change can be counteracted by irrigation, but unfortunately the models also show that there will be a lot less water available… so this is very unlikely to be able to save the industry." And it's not only black truffles that are threatened by climate change. The researchers are now looking at summer truffles "and early indications show that they are also surprisingly sensitive to changes in moisture and temperature," Thomas said,

For many years, truffle hunters used pigs and wild boar to sniff out the rare and expensive delicacy, which grow underground in forests. Today, however, more than 90 percent of truffles that originate in France are cultivated, according to Thomas, and they are harvested by trained dogs rather than wild boar. "This method started in the 70s," Thomas said. "Truffle production in Europe was declining due to changing land use and loss of wild habitat, and cultivation managed to stem this decline.

A truffle pig at work. Robert Vayssié

"However, truffles still are quite expensive because they are so rare. Every year, French growers plant 400,000 truffle trees—trees inoculated with the truffle fungus, "but this has only been enough to keep their truffle production relatively static," Thomas said. "The supply-demand price response of truffles is evident in unusually dry and warm years in Europe, when production suffers and consequently prices rise quite dramatically. For example in 2004, the prices paid for black truffles doubled because there were such low levels of production."

Because truffles now can be cultivated, growers in Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa and the United States have gotten into the business. "USA production is still quite small, but this is forecast to increase as more plantations are established," said Thomas, who also serves as chief scientist for the American Truffle Company. For now, growers in Italy, France and Spain produce around 95 percent of the world's supply, he said, which amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity.

Truffles don't just generate income. They are also a rich source of cultural inspiration. There are truffle museums, truffle markets, and societies and rituals that evolve around truffles, for example, the France-based Confrérie de la Truffe Noire—Brotherhood of the Truffle—and the Richerenches Mass, a service honoring Saint Anthony, the patron saint of truffle farmers, Thomas said. The fungi hold a special place for both growers and gourmets.

"Truffles elevate dishes to levels of perfection," Potts said. "I actually salivate when I think about them."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) is a beloved holiday favorite. PETA

8 Festive Vegan Drinks to Keep You Cozy This Winter

By Zachary Toliver

Looking for warm vegan holiday drinks to help you deal with the short days and cold weather? This time of year, we could all use a steamy cup of cheer during the holiday chaos. Have a festive, cozy winter with these delicious options. (Note that you must be 21 to enjoy some of the recipes.)

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Pexels

For a Happier, Healthier World, Live Modestly

By Marlene Cimons

Gibran Vita makes every effort to get rid of the dispensable. He lives in a small home and wears extra layers indoors to cut his heating bills. He eats and drinks in moderation. He spends his leisure time in "contemplation," volunteering or working on art projects. "I like to think more like a gatherer, that is, 'what do I have?' instead of 'what do I want?'" he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
An underwater marker in front of Cortada's studio helps predict how many feet of water needs to rise before the area becomes submerged. Xavier Cortada

As Miami Battles Sea-Level Rise, This Artist Makes Waves With His 'Underwater Homeowners Association'

By Patrick Rogers

Miami artist Xavier Cortada lives in a house that stands at six feet above sea level. The Episcopal church down the road is 11 feet above the waterline, and the home of his neighbor, a dentist, has an elevation of 13 feet. If what climate scientists predict about rising sea levels comes true, the Atlantic Ocean could rise two to three feet by the time Cortada pays off his 30-year mortgage. As the polar ice caps melt, the sea is inching ever closer to the land he hopes one day to pass on to the next generation, in the city he has called home since the age of three.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
GMVozd / E+ / Getty Images

How to Ferment Vegetables in Three Easy Steps

By Brian Barth

A mason jar packed with cultured or fermented vegetables at your local urban provisions shop will likely set you back $10 to $15. Given that the time and materials involved are no more than five minutes and $2, respectively, one imagines that the makers of cultured vegetables have spent eight years training with fermentation masters in some stone-age village, or that they've mortgaged their house to pay for high-end fermenting equipment to ensure that the dilly beans come out tasting properly pickled.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
Orangutan in Sumatra. Tbachner / Wikimedia Commons

Norway to Ban Deforestation-Linked Palm Oil Biofuels in Historic Vote

The Norwegian parliament voted this week to make Norway the world's first country to bar its biofuel industry from importing deforestation-linked palm oil starting in 2020, The Independent reported.

Environmentalists celebrated the move as a victory for rainforests, the climate and endangered species such as orangutans that have lost their habitats due to palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia. It also sets a major precedent for other nations.

Keep reading... Show less
Oceans
Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Steve Parish/ Lock the Gate Alliance / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Scientists Discover 'Most Diverse Coral Site' on Great Barrier Reef

Australian scientists have found the "most diverse coral site" on the Great Barrier Reef, observing at least 195 different species of corals in space no longer than 500 meters, The Guardian reported.

The non-profit organization Great Barrier Reef Legacy and marine scientist Charlie Veron, a world expert on coral reefs, confirmed the diversity of the site, also known as the "Legacy Super Site" on the outer reef.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy
Buses head out at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal Nov. 10, 2017. Andy Cross / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Why Aren't School Buses Electric? These Coloradans Are Sick of Diesel

By Corey Binns

Before her two kids returned to school at the end of last summer, Lorena Osorio stood before the Westminster, Colorado, school board and gave heartfelt testimony about raising her asthmatic son, now a student at the local high school. "My son was only three years old when he first suffered from asthma," she said. Like most kids, he rode a diesel school bus. Some afternoons he arrived home struggling to breathe.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
jessicahyde / iStock / Getty Images

Hemp May Soon Be Federally Legal, But Many Will Be Barred From Growing It

By Dan Nosowitz

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has, perhaps unexpectedly to those who find themselves agreeing with only this one position of his, been a major force for legalizing industrial hemp. Industrial hemp differs from marijuana in that it's bred specifically to have extremely low concentrations of THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana; smoke industrial hemp all you want, it'll just give you sore lungs.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!