The black truffle is one of the most prized and expensive ingredients in the culinary world, thanks to its status in the cuisines of France and Italy.
But for decades, harvests have been continually decreasing—what was once a bad harvest year is now the norm. A new study estimates that the entire European truffle harvest may be gone within a generation.
Black truffles, which grow underground next to the roots of a few friendly tree species, are very difficult to cultivate; despite efforts and some mild success, the vast majority of black truffles are gathered from the wild. Most of these, and thus most of the world’s supply of black truffles, come from the southernmost regions of a few Mediterranean countries, especially France, Spain, Italy, and Croatia. Black truffles are finicky organisms, requiring fairly narrow temperatures: mild winters, without frost, and warm but not hot summers. They need a fair amount of precipitation during the summer, which is their growth period, but also dry winters, to avoid waterlogging and mold.
There have been several studies looking at the future of the black truffle industry as climate change affects its habitat, but this new one, from Paul Thomas at the University of Stirling, looked at 36 years of both truffle production and in-depth weather and climate reports. The findings aren’t encouraging.
Hotter summers, with around half a degree Celsius increase in average temperatures per decade, could quickly take long-time truffle environments out of the game. Extreme droughts in the summer, which have been and are expected to continue to increase in rate and severity, could also prove fatal. Water may become scarce. The trees that the truffles depend on might have trouble surviving. New pest infestations seem likely; nobody knows in what form.
In all, the research in this study indicates that, between 2071 and 2100, the European truffle output will decrease by between 78 percent and 100 percent. Yes, 100 percent.
There is a possibility that climate change will simply make other parts of the globe—the United Kingdom is frequently mentioned—more suitable for growing black truffles. This may be true, although it’s probably more sensible to view the looming extinction of a species from its historic home as a terrifying example of the kind of chaos climate change could bring.