Hot cheeeeze: climate change and the future of deliciousness

As I’ve written many times before, being married to a food writer has exposed me to unusual, delicious, disturbing and most of all, abundant amounts of food. I’ve found myself in numerous gluttonous situations where I’ve had to offend many by insisting, “no, no, if I eat one more bite, I *really* will explode. Seriously. Boom.”

The most notorious of these events was an artisan cheese gathering with 30 of the best, most expensive, loveliest west coast cheeses. We are talking cheeses that are made by monks, in volcanic caves, using the milk from 3 rare purple pigmy goats fed only acorns and avocadoes. It’s exclusive cheese that costs obscene amounts of money, and will be tasted by very few.

While my husband was off doing cheese things, I made the rounds, tasting every last one of these exclusive bites. As I stuffed wedges into my cheeks like a chipmunk, I learned from the cheese makers that they were not only interested in what animals they used (cow, sheep or goat), but what their animals ate: “My cows feed from west side of the Sierra foothills”, “Well, my cows nosh the salty grasses by the pacific coast” – can’t you tell the difference? I nodded wildly, slipping goat sausage and gluten free crackers into my pockets. But honestly, I was skeptical; how could an animal’s diet affect the cheese? Maybe the milk, sure, but wasn’t there enough processing along the way to diminish any differences between the animals’ diets? Turns out, I was wrong to be skeptical—what the animals feed on can influence the composition of the cheese.

Not shocking, you say. Of course a soft goat cheese from the Basque hills of southern France will be different from the same style cheese from the northern coast of California. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about animals grazing on a much smaller scale, I’m talking on which side of the hill—sunny or shady side?

This stuff matters. Seriously. It turns out that where cows graze on a micro-level (like which side of the hill they are on, which pasture they’re grazing), affects the components of the cheese, things like trans-fatty acids and hydrocarbons (1). Researchers hypothesize that the microbial community in the cow rumen—the “first stomach” where cows break down grasses into cud—was actually influenced by the type of plants being eaten. That in turn can influence the milk, and therefore cheese.

So much like real estate, and wine, location matters. Graze a cow on the same plants on the same pasture, and it’ll give you the same sort of milk every year. Unless you are raising cows in a region that could be disrupted by climate change — which is, I don’t know, everywhere?

Let’s focus on one place in particular, like alpine zones; high altitude areas popular with European dairy farmers. It’s well known that as the climate changes, so have the alpine plant communities (2). And what do alpine cows like to eat? Well, alpine vegetation, presumably.

So, would it be possible for climate change to alter the composition or flavor of cheese? Well composition seems like a sincere possibility. Flavor? Well, if you’re looking to hang out with some sexy Italian milkmaids, I’ve got a research study for you: climate change effect on the terroir of cheese.

You won’t even need to acknowledge me when you win the Nobel cheese prize—knowing I gave you the idea will be enough. Just send me a couple wheels of your experimental Asiago when you’re done.

Further Reading:
(1) Characterization of two Agrostis-Festuca alpine pastures and their influence on cheese composition
(2) Continent-wide response of mountain vegetation to climate change

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is the Policy & Programs Director at the National Center for Science Education. She wants to apologize for this blog being a short one, but she loves cheese so much that she actually had to cut out about 20 lines of “cheesecheesecheesecheesecheese” and this is what was left. Also, this video.

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