Hide Your Pumpkin Pie, Climate Change Is Coming for It

The potential consequences of climate change are pretty well known: rising sea levels, global food insecurity, more frequent and extreme wildfires, stronger storms. But what you might not know is that climate change could also threaten your holiday slice of pumpkin pie.

This year, Libby’s Pumpkin — which supplies more than 85 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin — is anticipating that their annual pumpkin yields will be reduced by half due to an unusually rainy late spring and early summer. The company, which is owned by Nestle, is headquartered in Morton, Illinois — the self-proclaimed pumpkin capital of the world. Ninety percent of the United States’ pumpkins are grown within a 90-mile radius of Peoria, Illinois, which is just 10 miles from Morton.

When we ship the last of the 2015 crop — in early November — we will be left with no reserves

Illinois experienced record-setting precipitation in June, with more than nine inches falling over most of the state throughout the month — 5.33 inches above average. From May through July, prime growing months for the kinds of processing pumpkins found throughout Illinois, the state received almost two feet of rain — 10.4 inches above average, according to Jim Angel, Illinois’ state climatologist.

“This year’s harvest was reduced because rains came early in the season during a critical growth period,” Roz O’Hearn, corporate and brand affairs director for Nestle USA, told ThinkProgress. “The result: not as many pumpkins formed from the flowers.”

Normally, Libby’s harvests pumpkins from late August through the end of October or early November, but this year, the harvest ended on October 5, almost a month early, due to poor yields.

“We originally reported our yield could be off by as much as a third, but updated crop reports indicate yields will be reduced by half this year,” O’Hearn said.

O’Hearn told ThinkProgress that Libby’s anticipates having enough product to get customers through the Thanksgiving holiday, but expects that holiday demand will completely deplete their stock, leaving nothing in reserve. That means that once Libby’s makes its final shipment of canned pumpkin — probably around the beginning of November — there will be no extra canned pumpkin to stock shelves.

“We plant several thousand acres with Libby’s select seed. Generally, the yields meet the current year’s needs and provides enough reserve to carry us through the start of the New Year,” O’Hearn said. “Unfortunately, when we ship the last of the 2015 crop — in early November — we will be left with no reserves. That means we will have no pumpkin to ship until the next harvest, which will begin in August 2016.”

At a Senate roundtable last week on climate change and food production, Nestle’s president of corporate affairs Paul Bakus spoke of declines in Libby’s pumpkin harvests. The last time Libby’s was hit with a shortage of similar magnitude was 2009, when two times the normal amount of precipitation fell during the harvest, causing tractors to become trapped in the mud and unable to reach the pumpkins before their quality degraded beyond Libby’s standards for harvest. When pumpkins sit on saturated soil for too long, O’Hearn explained, it negatively affects their quality, creating an environment conducive to blight and mildew. During the 2009 shortage, supply was already down from a poor harvest in 2008, and pumpkin stocks were depleted into 2010.

In central Illinois … May through June precipitation has increased by an average of two inches.

Heavy spring rains are consistent with the kind of weather Illinois can expect to see in the future due to climate change, according to the National Climate Assessment, an increase in both average precipitation and heavy precipitation is projected for Illinois by the middle of the current century. Over the past century, Angel points out on his blog that Illinois’ average precipitation has increased by between 10 and 15 inches, depending on location. In central Illinois, where Libby’s pumpkin growing operation is located, May through June precipitation has increased by an average of two inches (though Angel points out notable exceptions, like drought years in 1988, 2005, and 2012). For the entire state of Illinois, four of the 10 rainiest Junes on record have occurred since 2010.

O’Hearn did not say whether Libby’s has begun planning for a future where frequent late spring rains are more common, though Bakus made clear during the Senate roundtable that Nestle as a corporation is attune to the potential impacts on their business due to climate change.

“When we feel the impact of climate change, we feel it globally,” he said.

And when it comes to messing with beloved pumpkin products, climate change doesn’t seem content to stop with pie — as the Atlantic noted last month, unseasonably warm summer temperatures in Oregon forced Rogue Brewery to release its seasonal pumpkin beer five weeks earlier than usual this year.

Starbucks, which announced this year that it would begin including pumpkin puree into its pumpkin spice latte, did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for information about how the impending pumpkin shortage might impact the beloved/hated seasonal beverage. But even if there’s enough pumpkin to go around, the PSL might not be long for the world: recent studies show that climate change is already taking its toll on the global supply of Arabica coffee.

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