For over 150 years, a small spit of land in Louisiana has been at the epicentre of a hot sauce empire. Avery Island may not look like much, but it is arguably one of the most historic food destinations on the planet. It is here that seven generations of the McIlhenny family have dedicated their lives to producing world-famous fiery bottles of Tabasco. But, for all the heritage that links the land to this signature southern product, time may soon be up for the brand’s ancestral home.
Avery Island’s geography has long been Tabasco’s source of strength. The island is actually a mound of solidified salt that rises 163ft above the flat marshy bayou that surrounds it. In years past, this made the island a natural fortress that still enjoyed ready access to the mainland beyond. Today, however, Avery’s makeup is causing a geological headache for worried hot sauce businessmen. As global warming takes effect and the climate begins to transform, Tabasco are finding themselves in danger of being engulfed by the rising sea.
Since Europeans first arrived in Louisiana, there has been an almost ceaseless war against the natural environment. A series of bulwarks, levees and dams have been erected over centuries, all in an attempt to disrupt and reshape the waterways that crisscross the landscape. Thousands of miles of marsh and wetland have been dredged to make way for crops and property development, leaving a coastline almost unrecognisable from how it would have appeared just a few centuries ago.
Aside from untold damage to local wildlife, these sweeping changes have left coastal communities and businesses more vulnerable and exposed than ever. In 2005, Hurricane Rita advanced unopposed through the shallow swamp, nearly flooding the Tabasco facility on Avery Island. As a result, the company erected a 17-foot tall, $5 million dollar levee as a drastic defensive measure. Unfortunately, this was just the start of the region’s disintegration at the hands of nature.
All across Louisiana, a piece of land the size of a football field is lost to the rising sea every 100 minutes. The Avery Island marshlands themselves are retreating by about 30ft per year in the face of the floodwaters (ironically ushered in by the network of man-made canals created by the oil and gas companies that operate in the Gulf of Mexico). The brackish advance destroys plant life and erodes the land at a far faster rate than natural marsh waters, leaving whole areas facing an uncertain future. It’s estimated that the sea need rise by only about two feet or so, before Avery Island and the Tabasco facility become the only features for miles in an otherwise watery desert.
For a business that depends on exporting its product worldwide and with ease, such a future spells big trouble for Tabasco and the McIlhennys. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the current generation is taking the threat very seriously. Harold Osborn, executive Vice-President of the McIlhenny Company and great-great-grandson of founder Edmund McIlhenny, has made it clear that he believes the only defence is a natural one. As a man with a masters degree in natural science, he believes that the marshlands that once stretched unbroken for miles hold the key to defending the factory. He has therefore made it his mission to restore them to their former glory and protect the business in the process.
But, for all Osborn’s environmental optimism, there are others who believe that the situation is already too far gone. The state government has already set out a multi-billion dollar master plan, outlining a network of seawalls and levees designed to protect nearly 30,000 homes from ocean flooding. The desperation with which authorities are working goes to show that this is a state on the front line in the global fight against climate change.
What the constantly changing situation means for the future of Tabasco is even less clear. Though the slopes of Avery island were once filled with ripening peppers, most of the company’s growing is today done in Central and South America, before the crops are transported to Avery Island for production. It is here that the red pulp is left to ferment with vinegar and sugar in vast warehouses for three years, before it is bottled and shipped. Though Osborn insists that he expects the business to still operate in much the same way in 300 years' time, change may be forced upon them if Avery Island becomes even more isolated.
For many, facing up to the consequences of climate change is a tricky business. So relatively slow are the impacts that deniers and sceptics can feel quite detached from the realities of the situation. To a Republican sitting comfortably on top of Capitol Hill, rising sea levels can feel like a blip on the horizon. But as the plight of Louisiana shows, the situation is a whole lot different when the sea is lapping at your doorstep.