Drought drives Middle Eastern pepper farmers out of business, threatens prized heirloom chiles
Editor’s note: This marks the launch of Climate Change and Food Culture, a series of posts by Gary Nabhan about how climate change threatens to stamp out some of the globe’s most celebrated foodstuffs, and along with them the farming and cooking cultures that created them.
Most Turks live on the water’s edge in the far western reaches of their vast country. But many of the spices that perfume the air in Turkey’s famous urban bazaars come from the nation’s southeastern farming areas of Sanliurfa and Kahramanmaras. In fact, spices from this region rank among the most highly prized condiments and herbs you can find in any spice emporium anywhere.
As I wandered through the Misir Carsisi Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, and the Kemeralti Bazaar at the western terminus of the Silk Road in Izmir, I could see the chile powders, pastes and dried fruits from Sanliurfa and Kahramanmaras proudly and prominently displayed.
Urfa and Maras peppers from Turkey have the same international fame that Aleppo (Halaby) peppers do from Syria, Tabascos do from Louisiana, or Habaneros do from the Yucatan. But their prices are soaring and supplies are becoming scarce–not merely because of international demand, but because of drought and agricultural water scarcity triggered by global climate change.
The same climate-driven pressures are affecting the survival of the Halaby pepper and its traditional farmers near Aleppo, Syria. In the past three years, 160 Syrian farming villages have been abandoned near Aleppo as crop failures have forced over 200,000 rural Syrians to leave for the cities. This news is distressing enough, but when put into a long-term perspective, its implications are staggering: many of these villages have been continuously farmed for 8000 years. As one expert puts it, this may be the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.
The thousands of tourists and residents who purchase Urfa and Maras chiles in Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar may not yet realize it, but their access to these world class spices is being disrupted by climate change. Since 2007, rains in some forty Turkish provinces, northern Syria and eastern Iraq have been 30 percent to 40 percent of their normal levels. The drought in southeastern Anatolia has reduced harvests by 80 percent. In Syria, 60 percent of the agricultural lands have been affected by these droughts.
In Iraq, 2 million rural residents have been left without water. Many irrigation canals remain dry, as the only water reaching rivers like the Euphrates is being usurped by cities upstream. Downstream on the Tigris-Euphrates delta, saltwater intrusion is making domestic water unpotable. Between the three countries, perhaps five million people have been directly affected.
Peppers are perhaps the most widely-used spice, condiment and vegetable in the world, but the devil is in the details. Many folks cannot tolerate the heat of a Bhut Jolokia or Habanero, but prefer the milder, smokier aroma of a Urfa or Chilpotle. And yet, we can no longer take unrestricted globalized access to such culinary treasures for granted. Our own patterns of consumption and proliferation of greenhouse gases are endangering the very things that give us pleasure.
Think about it. The loss of farmers from Saliurfa, Kahramanmaras and Aleppo–far away places you may have never heard of before–is our own plight. Our food security and access to treasures of world food culture are linked to their water and land security. One heirloom chile pepper blinking out may not be all that great of a loss, but the cumulative loss of food biodiversity driven by climate change will touch us all.