Kiss Your Maple Syrup Goodbye?

By Elisabeth Rose

Maple sap is traditionally collected in buckets with lids, then collected by hand.

How much will your great-grandchildren pay to eat blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup, or won’t those foods be available to eat at all?

Most of us take it for granted that in CT we will always be able to serve our guests the same treats that are by now treasured memories of our childhood.  We figure we can introduce them to blueberry pie, pancakes with maple syrup, or shellfish and lobster at a summer family get-together.  We assume that even our favorite “non-edible” pleasures will always be there for our kids, like those fall “leaf peeping” drives we so cherish, to see the magnificent finery our maples don when their leaves start to change color.

Unfortunately, with the rapid increase of global warming and climate change, our assumptions are incorrect.  The sad truth is that the incremental increase in temperature and the precipitation patterns it causes are proving to have disastrous effects on our crops and on the environment in general, and thus far, adaptation methods seem few and far between.  How will CT food be affected?  According to a new report from the CT’s DEEP, agriculture will be “highly affected” by climate change, and “most of these potential impacts are negative.”  Global warming, earlier springs, shorter winters and unexpected weather patterns are wreaking havoc on our food supply.

In an article from The Natural Farmer Archives, David W. Wolfe explains that a decrease in cold weather can adversely affect fruits such as blueberries and apples, which need a period of cold before they set flower.  Other crops similarly affected include pears, some types of grapes, cranberries (mostly in southern MA), winter cereal grains (winter wheat) and soybeans.

Cool season crops such as potatoes and members of the Brassica family (cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts) will pose a similar challenge as temperatures rise.  Maple syrup production will also be greatly affected since freezing nights combined with warm days are needed to trigger sap flow in the late winter.  Sugar maples will not survive (at least in the areas where they are now) if the temperatures are consistently above 77 degrees Fahrenheit over a long period.  In some places the sugar levels in maple sap have dropped by one third.  Droughts decrease the amount of root starch in maples, which lowers their sugar content.  Warming temperatures are one of many problems facing maple trees because they produce a rise in insect infestations, resulting in leaves being eaten during the spring and summer, decreasing the trees’ ability to photosynthesize.  Furthermore, maple leaves will cease to change color if there are no sudden shifts to an extended cold period.

Flowers as well as trees will be affected as heat and humidity causes die-off, fungi, and the overall weakening of plants, allowing easier entry for disease-bearing vectors.  This affects not only plant life but also bees and butterflies, which depend on them for pollination and nectar.

Besides vegetable and fruit crops, dairy production and aquaculture will also be severely affected.  Warmer winters mean cows will store less fat and produce less milk. Lobsters will also be affected:  According to a July 2 article in the Huffington Post, lobster industry advocates in Portland, ME reported that, “carbon pollution from power plants, cars and elsewhere is warming up and acidifying waters in the Gulf of Maine.”  The warmer waters prompt lobsters to seek colder waters, which makes them more disease-susceptible, and “acidified waters hurt lobsters’ ability to form adequate shells.”  These same issues are affecting lobsters in the Long Island Sound.

So what information has been provided to farmers about these issues?   The EPA has at least touched on how climate change affects crops, the DEEP has published a Climate Change preparedness plan that includes agriculture, and the (federal) Department of Agriculture website has mentioned it in a report entitled “Creating Modern Solutions for Environmental Challenges.”  Yet, our own CT Dept of Agriculture has neglected to provide farmers with adaptation plans.  How can they move ahead?  What kinds of crops could they plant that would work in a hotter and more humid climate?  We asked Commissioner Reviczky’s office about this, but were told to look at a report, which did not address adaptation called “The Impacts of Climate Change on CT Agriculture, Infrastructure, Natural Resources and Public Health.”  When asked for more information, we were told to look elsewhere.

Robin Shreeves, in her blog, “Mother Nature Network,” recently said of the decrease of maple trees producing sap,

“I was struck by the fact that trees are migrating north toward colder climate. It made me think of how some people say that we aren’t destroying the earth with our environmental damage; we’re destroying ourselves. The earth will figure out how to adapt. Humans may have a harder time.”

And that is the issue.  How will we humans adapt?

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