Why you will have to tell your grandchildren what pasta was, and why we should care about climate change before it’s too late

Disclaimer: This is not a scientific article, and it has no ambition to be. It’s my point of view on the latest IPCC report.

I will start with an anecdote.

I was with a bunch of colleagues in the canteen of a major environmental NGO, where I used to work, and was eating my alleged pasta with pesto from the kitchen. I say alleged because, yes, it had roughly the colours and the shape of a pasta with pesto, but was very far from tasting like it.

I will get over the pesto, I guess only someone from Genova could explain the magic of basil, olive oil, parmigiano and pine nuts crushed and blended and mixed to create one of the most famous and tasty sauces you could add to your daily pasta. That one was too salty, the cheese was evidently not parmigiano, and there was little if no oil.

But the pasta. Oh, mamma mia, the pasta.

First, it was very soft, almost melted, you hardly noticed it under your teeth while chewing. Totally not al dente.
Second, and related, it was made of regular soft wheat. Huge mistake, dear anonymous food provider. Because the real Italian pasta (we invented it, after all) is and can only be made of hard (or durum, if you wish) wheat. By law. Name it as you wish, but don’t call it pasta, ok?

The occasional reader eventually survived to my rant on authentic pasta might now be wondering why I am bringing this up.

[You can skip this part if you have no time]

To understand why, I would warmly suggest the reader to:

first go out, find a reasonably high-quality supermarket and buy some Italian pasta, made in Italy, possibly from Garofalo or De Cecco, also Barilla would do;

second, cook the pasta following the instructions, in enough boiling salty water (1 liter for each 100gr.) for the amount of time required to dampen it without it getting too soft; then stir it in a saucepan with some Italian tomato sauce and basil, previously cooked for 10-15 minutes with some extra-virgin olive oil;

third, while eating, go on with reading this post.

I apologize with anyone feeling offended by me assuming the reader doesn’t know how to cook pasta. Blame it on my PTSD caused by watching a so-called British cook throwing some spaghetti on the wall to see if they were done. Or blame it on my insuppressible love for slow, good food. Whatever.

[End of expendable part]

The point is, this, all this marvel of Italian pasta, fruit of a millenary evolution, is very likely to become something to recall with sparkly eyes, while eating your daily dose of amino acids together with other thousands of survivors in chemical suits under a grey hopeless sky.

Last summer, in southern Italy, has been exceptionally long and reasonably hot and dry. Until mid-November, thanks to a very warm air front from central-eastern Europe, people were enjoying temperatures above 20°C in most of the southern regions of Italy and swimming. It’s becoming quite the norm, and for now, except for a few flash-floods and their burden of victims and universal blame, climate change has hardly affected Italy. But it will, soon enough for most of us to witness it.

The first part of the latest IPCC report is out, with the description of what’s wrong with our climate, lately. The main line is that scientists believe “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.

So, now we are sure (maybe 95%, maybe not, does it really make a difference?).

And what does they say, among other ghastly things? That “In southern Europe, climate change is projected to worsen conditions (high temperatures and drought) in a region already vulnerable to climate variability, and to reduce water availability, hydropower potential, summer tourism and, in general, crop productivity”.

Seriously? Like if mass unemployment, widespread corruption and weak politicians weren’t big enough issues to deal with.

In its carefully measured jargon, the IPCC adds that “there is […] high confidence that many semi-arid areas (e.g. Mediterranean Basin, western United States, southern Africa and north-eastern Brazil) will suffer a decrease in water resources due to climate change. {3.3.1Figure 3.5}”

This means up to an unbelievable 40% decrease in southern Italy.

Which inevitably leads to one conclusion. It will become more and more difficult to produce enough hard wheat, due to water scarcity and extreme weather events that are increasingly threatening our crops.

At this rate by the end of the century we Italians will probably have to start growing sorghum or other less-demanding crops. Maybe Sicily will become a huge cotton field in which we might as well start singing our gospels for long-gone traditional Italian food.

Some will say: ok, then we can produce hard wheat in Ukraine or somewhere else. After all the global production of hard wheat reaches 40 millions of tonnes, of which only 10% is produced in Italy.

Well, let me tell you something: trade is not the answer to all problems. You can’t solve everything by selling and buying land, crops, stuff. If hard wheat disappears from Italy I will (and you will) never ever hear anymore that faint sound of the southern wind passing through wheat fields, under a hot dry sun, while watching the Mediterranean sparkle until you get blinded by the light and overwhelmed by the feeling of being in the middle of your land and at the last station of a long long road made of the lives of your ancestors, their songs, their food, their dreams. Unless you listen to your iPod. Got the idea?

Besides, it would be very awkward if pasta made in Italy were to be actually produced somewhere else, right?

Yes, there are more terrible things happening right now because of climate change, and I’m not at all underestimating them. Rather, I am trying, partly light-hearted, partly serious, to awake your conscience by telling a very small story of climate change and loss. I hope that the pasta you just wolfed down will contribute to motivate you to act. After a nap, of course.

As I said in my disclaimer, I’m not a scientist but, to borrow IPCC’s jargon, I’m afraid that it is very likely that current trends in climate change will ultimately lead to a gradual disappearance of hard wheat, hence of properly made pasta, from the world. This will be only one of the long term consequences of us not advocating enough and not doing enough to fight back and cut emissions and so on. A small, very small yet so precious thing that we might as well lost while watching the last kitten video on our iPads. Add it to a reducing population of whales together with death in the oceans due to over-fishing, rainforests being cut down like they were some rose bushes in your backyard, et cetera et cetera. Yes, we can’t be sure at this stage of what exactly will happen, and this is one more reason to wait for the second part of IPCC report, to be released later this year. But, honestly, I wouldn’t take the risk. Would you?

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