Wednesday, June 12, 2024

3 overlooked signs a food is climate friendly (Lessons from hazelnuts) – Climate Generation

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Two years ago, I moved to Minnesota to sell hazelnuts. I believed strongly in their potential to fight climate change, and I was overcome with excitement – getting tongue tied talking about what it could mean to swap the endless corn and soy fields for a food with seemingly endless environmental benefits. 

But I soon noticed that the attributes of hazelnuts that dazzled me enough to quit my job and move across the country were not the same attributes I was looking for when planning menus and filling up my shopping cart. 

I would purchase foods based on indicators that sustainable farming practices had been used (organic, regenerative, local, etc.), but overlook the inherent qualities of the specific foods themselves. My hopes in writing this list are (1) that you too will be dazzled by the wonders of Midwest hazelnuts, and (2) that you will seek out the foods in your region that possess these underappreciated qualities. Afterall, these are the foods that will keep farms resilient and communities fed as the world changes around us.

Without further ado, three questions to help you identify oft-overlooked signs that a food is climate-friendly:

  1. Is it native? 

While locally-grown food receives considerable attention for its sustainability, the “localness” of a food has just as much to do with the history of generations passed.

“A great opportunity lies in the consumption of … native flora adapted to the particular place we inhabit. These indigenous foods are knit into the ecology of a place, supporting the vitality of the soil, water, and wild plant and wildlife communities, as well as human needs.”
– Jared Rosenbaum, Botanist and author of Wild Plant Culture

The American hazelnut (Corylus americana) has grown wild in the forests and oak savannas of the Midwest since the melting of the glaciers. They have been tested by centuries of harsh winters, hot summers, heavy storms, dry periods, pests and diseases. They survived, and stand today ready to handle the variability of Midwestern weather conditions.

This resilience becomes even more important as the climate continues to change. Last summer, the Midwest was hit by a record drought. We feared the hazelnuts would suffer, but we ended the year with a record harvest. 

Resilience in our food system is not the only environmental benefit of adding native foods to our farms and diets. If you reach into a hazelnut bush during harvest time, you’ll quickly find bird nests, caterpillars, treefrogs, and other native species that built homes on farmed hazelnut bushes just as they would in the wild. When we eat native foods, farms become habitat. 

Lastly, native foods need very few human-supplied inputs to thrive. Afterall, they were meant to grow in a region’s natural conditions. Hazelnut farmers can expect a successful harvest without adding fertilizers or pesticides. Remember last summer’s drought I mentioned? Most hazelnut growers didn’t water their hazelnut bushes once. 

Native foods like Midwest hazelnuts provide greater climate resilience, create habitat for native flora and fauna, and require fewer inputs to thrive.

Find native foods to your area! Check out the cookbooks, recipes, and restaurants from Indigenous chefs and food sovereignty organizations in your area. Peruse a foraging book and earmark native plants that are grown commercially. Visit your local farmers market and chat with farmers about why they grow what they grow.

  1. Is it a tree (or bush)? 

This one may seem obvious, but I scarcely see orchards get the credit they deserve for their environmental benefits. Your average apple tree is sequestering a lot more carbon than your broccoli. Trees play a crucial role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it long term in the soil and in their woody biomass. Foods that are grown on trees, such as fruits and nuts, contribute to this process.

Hazelnut tidbit: Every few years, hazelnut production will slow and the bushes will be “coppiced”. Coppicing is the practice of cutting the bush down above the roots. The branches grow back quickly in a couple of years, efficiently sucking up carbon in all that new biomass, and reigniting the productivity of the bush. 

Not all orchards are created equal. Take an average California almond farm, for example. Almonds are notorious for their massive water consumption, and farms have been known to sink into the ground by several inches due to the immense groundwater extraction. Furthermore, a sustainable orchard ought to have an understory. If the soil below is bare, it is vulnerable to the elements and limited in its carbon storage capacity.

Hazelnut farm in Dayton, MN
  1. Is it perennial? 

This is a big one. 

If you already determined that a food came from a tree, you’ve got a yes here as well. 

Perennial crops are foods that return each year without needing to be replanted. Why does this make them climate-friendly? Because the soil stays undisturbed for years at a time. 

Picture an apple orchard (or hazelnut orchard) at harvest time. The trees and their roots stay intact as people or machines pick off the food. The next year, the tree blooms again. 

Now picture a field of corn. Each year, the plows dig up all the roots from last year to plant anew, and all the carbon that was sequestered during that corn’s short life is released back into the atmosphere.

Some perennial crops may surprise you. Kernza is a newly developed perennial grain that is becoming a climate-smart substitute for wheat. Asparagus, rhubarb, and artichokes are all perennial vegetables. 
The cookbook Perennial Kitchen by Beth Dooley is a wonderful way to explore perennials in your kitchen.

Thank you so much for reading! If you’re interested in bringing some of these dazzling Midwest hazelnuts into your kitchen, I hope you will check us out at American Hazelnut Company! Use the code CLIMATE10 at checkout for 10% off all online orders.

Emma Dempsey is the Sales and Marketing manager at the American Hazelnut Company, a farmer-owned start-up committing to building a climate-smart hazelnut industry in the Midwest.

Connect with American Hazelnut Company on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook!

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