Potato chips costing more? AP’s exclusive reporting illustrates global warming’s potential global impact on harvested crops.

After reporting for years on life-or-death results of global warming such as floods and wildfires, Traverse City, Michigan, correspondent John Flesher uncovered another serious but little-recognized consequence: Climate change poses an increasingly troublesome and costly threat to food crop storage in the United States and much of the world. 

To illustrate the issue, Flesher and this all-formats AP team looked at an everyday snack food. Michigan is the top U.S. producer of potatoes used for chips, thanks to a mild climate that lets farmers store their crops for months using only outdoor air to cool them. 

Flesher, a member of the Global Environmental Beat Team, came across a scientific paper warning that those hospitable conditions will become scarcer this century as the planet gets hotter. Climate models suggest things will get especially dicey after fall harvest, when the temperature of potatoes must be lowered quickly to avoid spoilage. 

Intrigued, he found similar dangers for other important crops: apples in the Northeast and Northwest; peanuts in the Southeast; lettuce in the Southwest; tomatoes in the Ohio Valley. And the problem isn’t limited to the U.S. In Sub-Saharan Africa, subsistence farmers are finding it harder to store grain as global warming worsens rotting and pest infestations. 

Flesher teamed with Detroit-based video journalist Mike Householder and photographer Carlos Osorio to report on the growing threat to food crop storage. To help readers and viewers visualize the problem and put a human face on it, they visited the potato farm of a Michigan family now using refrigerators to supplement the ventilation fans that had been sufficient for generations.  They also visited a manufacturer of cooling systems that will be increasingly necessary for potatoes, beets, carrots and onions. The takeaway: Such equipment, and the energy to run it, likely will drive up costs for farmers and consumers.

The team’s exclusive, all-formats package drew strong online play, from the Miami Herald to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and numerous others. The story fronted the Detroit Free Press, and drew some 2,900 pageviews to apnews.com with 2,800 Facebook interactions. Customers were also drawn to Householder’s engaging video, showing the handling and storage of potatoes before they hit the fryer.

For relatable coverage that calls attention to an underreported consequence of climate change — one with widespread implications — the team of Flesher, Householder and Osorio wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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