Climate change and the world’s most valuable food

Featured Image: The white truffle, historically harvested in Italy and the Balkans, is the most expensive food in the world (image via City Foodsters on Flickr)

Reference: Buntgen, U., H. Lendorff, A. Lendorff, A. Leuchtmann, M. Peter, I. Bagi, and S. Egli. 2019. Truffles on the Move. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17: 200-203 DOI: 10.1002/fee.2033

The white truffle is a culinary delicacy—the stuff of legend in fine kitchens. It is rare and grows in secrecy below ground. It has an intoxicating aroma that makes food lovers swoon but is almost impossible to describe, because it is only like itself. It is the most expensive food in the world.

Truffles are not cultivated, but harvested from underground in the wild. Image: D McMahan via Flickr

But environmental scientists, not just chefs, are tracking truffles because wild populations may be on the move due to climate change. Unlike most human foods, truffles are only harvested in the wild. Their lifecycle remains a mystery and they haven’t been successfully farmed. Instead, they are obtained only by hunting and excavating them in their subterranean habitats. (This essential wildness contributes to their mystique, and their expense). So understanding what conditions truffles like, where they grow, and why, are the pursuits of environmental scientists rather than farmers.

Dogs like this Lagotto romagnolo can be specially trained to track truffles (and help scientists). Image via pxhere

A group of European researchers—and their indispensable collaborator, an Italian “trained truffle dog” named Giano—have detected, excavated, and identified white truffles north of their traditional Italian homeland for the very first time. That means the leading edge of the white truffle range, which was thought to stop dead in its tracks at the Alps, appears to have leapt across the mountains and into the more northern latitudes of Switzerland.

Making this discovery was no simple case of backyard foraging. You know it’s serious science when specially trained dogs are involved. (…Another shout out to Giano the truffle pup, who appears to have collaborated loyally on this project for 7 years). After Giano’s detection of the truffles, the exact location of each fruiting body was pinpointed by GPS; the truffles were excavated and examined in a laboratory, then subjected to DNA testing to confirm their identify. And then—just guessing here—there must have been a high brow celebratory dinner, where I hope Giano enjoyed more than just table scraps.

This finding prompts many further questions about the biological and culinary life of truffles. Is this in fact a range shift due to climate change? What environmental conditions to truffles require in order to thrive? Where will those conditions exist in the future? Do effects of climate change on this species represent an economic threat? All of these fit into the bigger question of how human economies, cultures and ways of life will be challenged on a planet that we are continuing to change.

White truffles are harvested from the Piedmont countryside of northern Italy, but have recently been found north of the Alps. Image: D Jones via Flickr


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Kara Cromwell

I recently finished my PhD in Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focused on environmental drivers of disease in high-altitude streams. Beyond the science of parasites, I am interested in how people perceive the creepy, crawly and less charismatic elements of biodiversity, and I try to find creative ways to communicate about nature's unseemly side. I now live in Missoula, MT where I act as a consultant and communicator focused on making ecology research accessible and meaningful to community stakeholders.

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