Originally published on FoodUnfolded.com in December 2019.
Every year, truffles reap unpredictable harvests under conditions that are often hard to reproduce. This makes them a treasured and exclusive food ingredient all over the world. Only a few species, such as the black Périgord truffle, have been successfully cultivated by farmers. With rising concerns about global climate change, what does the future of the truffle look like?
How is climate change affecting truffles?
Truffles exist in symbiotic relationships with their host trees, called mycorrhizal relationships. The ecology of mycorrhizal fungi such as truffles is somewhat mysterious, owing to the fact that their life cycle and growth occurs below ground. Most species require a temperate climate, making Southern Europe and some parts of North America hotspots for growth. Certain species also grow in the unlikely parts of the world such as the Kalahari Desert of Africa and the Australian Outback. Given the rising temperatures, these regions may not be suitable for truffles in the future.
A study published in 2011, found that a species of summer truffle, the Burgundy, is showing up in unexpected places.1 It is slowly, but surely, moving north of the Alps in what the researchers understand as a result of long-term climate change. Data on truffle production, collected over forty-nine years, found that the years where yields were at their lowest, were also the hottest and driest.2 The study concluded that with rising temperatures and shifts in climate patterns, truffle ecology would undergo dynamic changes, with species such as the Burgundy and the Périgord moving northwards to more suitable climates. While these findings did not completely account for many other potentially causal factors, they shed light on the evolving behaviours of this elusive treat.2 This could mean that the coming years will see truffles mushrooming (pun very much intended) in new places around the world.
Truffles are disappearing
Most of us know truffles only as a luxury food that makes our entrée expensive. However, some indigenous communities and animal species depend on truffles for their nutritional needs. In the desert of the Kalahari, the San people, who have consumed Kalahituber truffles for centuries, can attest to the tale of the disappearing truffle.3 Long term data on the effects of climate change in the Kalahari shows that the desert is, indeed, getting drier and hotter.3
Several species of animals consume mycorrhizal fungi as a primary food source. Obligate consumers (whose nutritional requirements can only be fulfilled by a truffle-rich diet) include the California red backed vole, the long footed potoroo, and the Gilbert’s potoroo.4 Several other fungivorous animals are also left vulnerable with the gradual decrease of the truffle’s share in their diet.
What will happen to truffles in the future?
Besides being an important part of some diets, truffles are crucial for the hypogeal (underground) ecological cycle, as well as the health of the host plants that share their symbiotic function. Attempts to grow truffle varieties all around the world contribute towards ensuring year-round availability instead of seasonal plantations. But, this too is likely to be adversely affected by increasing water scarcity that would in turn affect irrigation practices. The future of the truffle – both jewel of the kitchen and fuel of the desert – thus lies uncertain.
- Büntgen, U., Tegel, W., Egli, S., Stobbe, U., Sproll, L., & Stenseth, N. (2011). Truffles and climate change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 9(3), 150-151. Accessed 15 October 2019.
- Splivallo, R., Rittersma, R., Valdez, N., Chevalier, G., Molinier, V., Wipf, D., & Karlovsky, P. (2012). Is climate change altering the geographic distribution of truffles?. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 10 (9), 461-462. Accessed 15 October
- Trappe, J., Claridge, A., Arora, D., & Smit, W.A. (2008). Desert truffles of the African Kalahari: Ecology, ethnomycology, and taxonomy. Economic Botany, 62 (3), 521-529. Accessed 14 October 2019.
- Maser, C., Claridge, A., & Trappe, J. (2008). Trees, Truffles, and Beasts: How Forests Function. Accessed 16 October 2019.