Have you ever seen an option to “add shaved truffles” on a menu? If you’re at a restaurant that offers that possibility, it already says something about the state of your finances, but even then, adding shaved truffles still feels like a choice you would make if you were in a Brewster’s Millions situation, like ordering one of everything or telling the bar everyone’s drinks are on you. The Périgord truffle, also known as the prized winter black truffle, is around $1,500 a pound. The Piedmont white truffle, which is only found in the wild, can cost over twice that. Unless you count the truffle oil-laden fries of the mid-aughts, which no self-respecting truffle enjoyer would, the decadent flavor of truffles is still mostly reserved for more rarified meals.
That’s largely because truffles are an incredibly finicky crop, difficult to propagate and time-consuming to harvest. “It’s not really like traditional farming because you don’t just plant them and then the next year you harvest,” says Ryan Jacobs, author of The Truffle Underground. Instead, the fungi have a symbiotic relationship, called ectomycorrhiza, with the roots of certain trees. “You need about 10 years before you figure out whether the fungus has made a symbiotic connection with the tree’s roots,” says Jacobs. Harvesting them too early might destroy that relationship. And then, of course, there’s the delicate balance of soil pH, water, and temperature that has historically meant truffles could only grow in certain regions, under very specific conditions. As Jacobs says: “It is an extremely temperamental art.”
But what if those regions expanded, meaning the most coveted truffle varieties, which once could only come from France, Spain, and Italy, could now be grown on nearly every continent? What happens when something that was once rare becomes common? What if those truffles became as abundant as button mushrooms?
According to a study published in Nature in December, climate change could possibly, maybe, make that a reality. Global warming may lead to the creation of more suitable land in which to grow truffles, and thus more widespread cultivation of the rare and expensive Périgord truffle, as well as the commonly cultivated Burgundy truffle, the third-most-desirable European truffle (in terms of cost, anway). That’s because the climate zones in which these truffles typically thrive are shifting, and possibly expanding, in Europe. The study considers three climate-change scenarios — low-, mid- and high-emission — which were calculated using five predictive climate models and a baseline of current climate conditions. (Essentially, scientists asked: What if temperatures rise a little bit, a little more, or a lot?) Focusing on the Czech Republic, which contains most of central Europe’s biogeographic zones, the study found that under the high-emission scenario, the general potential Burgundy truffle cultivation land shrinks, but under the other climate scenarios, it will expand. For Périgord truffles, which thrive in Mediterranean climate zones , the overall cultivation potential “will rise substantially.”
The study notes that a shift is already happening. “The migration of Périgord truffles into higher latitudes north of the European Alps, and the recently documented harvest decline in the species’ southern European habitats, have been attributed to climate warming,” it says. But the changing climate, as well as the fungi’s ability to adapt to new habitats, could offset the decline the crop is facing in its traditional growing areas in western and southern Europe, where rising temperatures have caused droughts that have drastically reduced the number of successful truffle harvests. There is even a scenario in which the new truffle cultivation area is bigger than what it replaces — a 2017 study by professor Paul Thomas, a researcher and founder of Mycorrhizal Systems Ltd., recorded the first Périgord truffle ever produced in the United Kingdom, once thought to be too cold to foster the fungus. On four other continents, truffle cultivation is also expanding. Combined with greater research in what makes a successful truffle harvest, there could soon be more truffles for all.
Both studies also note the potential economic benefits to regions that adopt truffle cultivation. “Our findings suggest that Burgundy and Périgord truffles could become important high-value crops for many regions in central Europe with alkaline soils,” says the Nature study. A 2019 market research report projected that through 2023, the global truffle market would post a compound annual growth rate of more than 19 percent. Noting such favorable outlooks, Thomas’s study says, “cultivation will have a clear and potentially sizable financial benefit in the UK, whilst at the same time aiding the conservation of this icon species.” At arm’s length, it sounds like a win-win — save an industry and possibly produce more of a species that has become a beloved luxury product. However, as with most effects of climate change, looking closer shows just how much we’d lose.
Most of what people know about the flavor of truffles — that sort of dirty, pungent, umami-rich flavor I can only think to call “erotic mildew” — is thanks to truffle oil, which is oil infused not with truffles, but with a synthetic form of 2,4-dithiapentane, a pungent molecule that is naturally produced by the white truffle. Truffle oil, used in dishes like truffle fries, truffle mashed potatoes, and truffle popcorn, rose to prominence thanks to both the growth of “foodie” culture and the Great Recession, which made consumers hunger for “luxury” items at affordable prices or paired with more affordable foods. (One of the funny things about the economics of truffles is that they’re almost exclusively served on or over dishes, like buttered pasta or tater tots, that have low material costs.) By the time the economy bounced back (for some), truffle was a known-enough flavor, and the ubiquity of fancy, truffle-flavored snacks has tempted more and more people to seek the real thing.
Part of the appeal of fresh truffles has always been their rarity, whether that’s because of seasonality or cost. But everyone loves the democratization of what was once the province of the elite, from grocery store sushi to, like, electricity. Truffles for everyone would taste good, but it’d also feel good. At least, it would for the masses who could now afford an ingredient that used to be synonymous with wealth — the rich people would move on to the next expensive thing that sets them apart, as they always do. And if we have to endure the ravages of climate change (and we do), can’t we have one nice thing?
Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. “In contrast to what you read from that Nature report, it looks like a complete collapse of the industry within the Mediterranean Basin,” Thomas told Eater. In a study published in 2018, Thomas and Ulf Büntgen, professor of environmental systems analysis at the University of Cambridge, looked at weather patterns for the past 36 years in France, Italy, and Spain and concluded that rising temperatures and increased droughts will mean “a likely collapse” of some southern European truffle production by the end of the century. Hotter summers and decreased summer rainfall mean the groundwater reserves are drying up. And while right now truffle farmers are getting around those current challenges with mechanical irrigation systems and other tricks, Thomas warns that soon, water may be too scarce to irrigate at all.
But if truffle-friendly land is expanding in northern and eastern Europe, this shouldn’t matter, right? In 2019, France, Spain, and Italy produced an estimated 90 percent of the world’s edible truffles, but cultivation has been established in Australia, South America, and the Pacific Northwest as well as elsewhere in Europe. Agricultural innovations are also saving some of Europe’s truffle production: Farmers in the Mediterranean have utilized hay and mulch mats to keep water in the ground during hot summer months. But the losses are too large, and new land gains aren’t being made fast enough. In 2019, France, Spain, and Italy had roughly 100,000 acres of truffle farms. “If we want to retrieve what we’re going to lose in that Mediterranean Basin, we’ve got to plant tens of thousands of [new] hectares, plus the 2,200 hectares [5,436 acres] that they’re planting every single year, just to keep production static,” said Thomas.
So maybe the future won’t hold Périgords for everyone, but truffles of some sort could abound. In Spain, more people are learning to cultivate desert truffles, which are native to North Africa and the Middle East: They taste different than truffles like the Périgord, allegedly more like bacon or dense mushrooms, and they thrive in arid climates. “I think we’ll probably see more of that, more of these crops which don’t need as much water perhaps replacing these more water-intensive ones,” said Thomas.
But since truffles were historically foraged, not farmed, cultivation and harvesting techniques attempt to mimic those wild conditions, which is often more art than science, and not a lucrative one at that. According to Jacobs, few people are exclusively truffle farmers. Instead, truffle cultivation takes place in a vineyard or other cropland they have on their land. “Without the preexisting interest and knowledge in truffle cultivation, that sell is not going to be super easy,” he said. “Even if you are growing a ton of them, it’s still just a value-add to whatever you’re doing.”
So spreading truffle cultivation to new territories is not just a massive infrastructural undertaking, it’s a cultural one — you have to convince people to start cultivating a temperamental, slow-to-grow crop in places where it’s never been done before. In Europe, much of the truffle knowledge has been passed down through generations. And even if potential terrain is expanding, a lack of cultural knowledge can be detrimental to truffle cultivation. Marco Bassi, co-founder of truffle importing company Done4NY, explained that unlike the black truffle, the Italian white truffle is a completely wild product. Climate change is already affecting white truffle hunting, as changing rains and temperatures have meant “in the last 15 years, hunters have found a fifth of what they used to.” But on top of that, higher demand combined with inexperienced truffle hunters looking to cash in has led to damaged habitats. “Their search doesn’t always respect the usual procedures or the cycle of nature,” he said, leading to truffles being picked before they’re ready and damage to the roots and soil. In recent years, fewer and fewer people have been interested in applying for the forest guard jobs that are “essential for the livelihood of truffles.”
When people speak of the potential climate change-related truffle boom, they’re speaking not necessarily about the crop itself, but what Thomas calls the “periphery activities” and jobs that spring up around a niche luxury product. “There’s the truffle festivals, truffle museums, you need truffle harvesters, you need people working in the orchards, there’s analytical services. It becomes this whole industry built around truffle cultivation, and it can be economically important,” he says. The Nature study lists mushroom-driven ecotourism as one potential benefit, as people plan vacations around being taken on a truffle hunt or to feast on a winter’s harvest. Thomas estimates that while Italy produces a relatively small percentage of truffles, at least 100,000 people are employed somewhere in the industry.
That industry is already collapsing in the Mediterranean Basin, and while Thomas has been researching growing conditions for the black truffle in order to replicate them in places where they have not traditionally been found, it’s pretty obvious that you can’t just pick up an entire culture and ask it to move 500 miles north. “[Truffles are] a large part of cultural identity,” he says. “And then when that’s removed, what kind of impact that has on people psychologically and within these rural communities, I don’t know. But I should imagine [it’s] perhaps not very good.”
In 2016, Twitter user @Trillburne laid out an imagined neoliberal response to the problems faced by humanity in the 21st century. As a socialist points out, late capitalism has created a “moral rot that pervades our entire society.” The neoliberal responds: “But imagine if we monetized the rot?” There is a certain allure to this hypothetical truffle glut, like enjoying a last glass of Champagne as the Titanic sinks. If it has to be this way, a silver lining could come in the form of some nicer meals before it all burns.
Except that’s not even happening. The “benefits” of truffle expansion are all economic — increased land value, more tourism, a bigger opportunity to cash in on a luxury product. It’s monetizing the rot, and while at best, the potential expansion could be used to incentivize people who otherwise wouldn’t care about the state of the planet to invest in irrigation or something, it also turns an apocalypse into a game. As temperatures rise, you could make some money if you bought enough land and oak trees in the Czech Republic? Who the fuck cares? And also, how dare you.
Either way, the dream of truffles for all is probably not going to happen. “I think we’re going to see a contraction in the truffle industry over the next few decades. That’s even with South America producing, North America producing, Australia and New Zealand, etc.,” says Thomas. And while truffle cultivation might expand in low- or medium-emissions scenarios, the planet continues to set new high-emissions records. Even in central and eastern Europe, potential truffle land looks on pace to shrink.
In the worst-case scenario, the truffle industry withers and entire cultures and livelihoods are ruined. But it’s also not hard to imagine the “best case” not turning out the way it should. If the main incentive for truffle cultivation is monetary, specifically because truffles are considered a rare and luxury commodity, then what good is it for those doing the selling to make them widely and cheaply available? We may get more truffles, but we may also get a truffle industry that keeps tight control over distribution and prices, the way De Beers once controlled diamonds. And even if everything goes right and truffles become abundant and cheap and nobody has to rely on truffle oil for their fix anymore, we get that in exchange for what? The collapse isn’t worth it.
The idea that climate change could bring about something good is intriguing, since at this point it’s here, and most people feel powerless to stop it. Governments aren’t enacting laws and industry restrictions that could curb emissions at the rate needed to prevent the worst outcomes, and are instead making it seem like an individual’s inability to recycle properly is responsible for rising sea levels. Some of us will recycle and cut down on meat and use less air conditioning anyway, but if we have to give up so much, a truffle in every pot would be a good reward. It was a nice thought.
Yadi Liu is an award-winning visual artist who is passionate about finding the optimum balance between illustration and modern art.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
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