Condiment Crisis! Climate Change Is Causing Mustard Shortage

It's delivering an ominous message in a bottle.

Mustard growing in France

Ichauvel / Getty Images

The last time Dijon mustard was in the news, it was the big 2009 controversy of the Obama administration when Fox News attacked the then-president for putting French Dijon on his cheeseburger instead of ketchup like real Americans. Quel scandal! 

Today, the scandal is that the former president might have to go without: There is no French mustard available anywhere; the mustard makers of Burgundy can't get any mustard seed.

Blame Canada. But also, blame the climate.

Mustard makers get most of their seed from western Canada. Food economist and distribution expert Sylvain Charlebois of Dalhousie University—known to Treehugger readers for his conversations with Katherine Martinko—tells The Star, “The harvest for mustard in Canada wasn’t great last year. So that’s been a challenge.”

The backup mustard seed supplier is Ukraine. 

France24 reported production was down 28% in 2021 and that "when Canada coughs, it's Burgundy, 7,000 kilometres (4,350 miles) away in central France, that catches a cold." Local seed production has fallen by two-thirds because of changes in the local environment including a lot more insects eating the mustard. The president of the Association of Burgundy Mustard Seed Producers (APGMB) complains, "Sometimes, there is no production at all. The industry is no longer allowed to use insecticides, which are authorized in Canada."

How to Grow Delicious Mustard Greens in Your Garden

Mustard is a cool-weather crop, like many leafy greens and Brassica relatives, and can even tolerate a light touch of frost, once it is mature. Plant at the tail-end of winter or early spring and then again in early fall for a late fall harvest. Even beginners and those with brown thumbs are bound to succeed at growing mustard greens. Read more.

Mustard is a big deal in France. Financial Times writer Victor Mallet notes that "this is the condiment with which we used to eke out our cash as teenagers by slathering it on endless slices of baguette as we hitchhiked around France in the 1970s." A chef in Paris explains that it is "fundamental to French cuisine." 

Industry website Food Ingredients First reports the French producers are calling for the development of more insect-resistant seeds as well as "expanding the supply to other regions of France to mitigate the weather conditions." It notes genetic engineering is being used to improve other crops to adapt them to changes in climate:

"Mustard producers could benefit from technological advances in robust seed breeding. Researchers from CropTailor AB and ScanOats managed to sequence the entire oats’ genome to breed more climate-resistant varieties. Stronger against droughts, more resistant to heat while also yielding more food."

In other words, use technology to adapt to climate change instead of trying to mitigate it. Redesign the mustard seed instead of fixing the problems that caused the crop failures. Given the time it takes to develop a GMO and the antipathy toward them in Europe, this seems to be an unlikely path, but apparently a popular one.

A Message in a Bottle

Our Mustard collection
We like mustard.

Lloyd Alter

A lack of fancy mustard is not exactly number one on our list of problems, but it does deliver a message in a bottle. Here we have a crisis with many contributors: drought in France, a heat dome in Canada, a war in Ukraine, and even a shortage of bottles due to the supply chain crisis. And the best solutions anyone can come up with are insecticides and genetic engineering.

A report from The University of Bonn and the Breakthrough Institute, published in Trends in Plant Science, is also calling for more GM foods in Europe, suggesting they can increase yields, reduce emissions, and mitigate land-use changes.

"The public debate about GM crops and new genomic breeding technologies remains contentious, especially in Europe. Critics focus primarily on hypothetical risks, while ignoring actual and potential benefits. Various reviews of the scientific literature show that the adoption of GM crops leads to economic, environmental, and health benefits through higher crop yields, higher farm profits, and, in some cases, lower chemical pesticide use."

This is the message: Don't mitigate the problem, but adapt with technology and chemistry. It's actually almost a prerecorded message from the Breakthrough Institute, whose director complains about the climate movement in The Economist, describing it as "the global climate-industrial complex—a nexus of campaigners, green charities and sustainable-business practitioners who are aided, abetted and amplified by their ideologically (and socially) aligned handmaidens in academia and stenographers in media."

I suppose that since I teach at a university and write in the media, I am both a handmaiden and a stenographer. But there seems to be willful blindness to dealing with the sources of the problem. Instead, the French mustard industry wants insecticides and others want genetically modified mustard seeds. Barack Obama and I had better enjoy our Dijon mustard while we can.