Do We Need Maple Syrup Alternatives?

There are some aspects of our lives that we always take for granted. For example, having maple syrup, which was first made by the Indigenous peoples of North America long before Europeans arrived. Its availability has made it a breakfast staple, as well as being an important part of the economies of the Northeastern United States and Canada (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maple_syrup).

But the syrup industry has an Achilles heel — it’s a monoculture with total dependence on one type of tree. Like any living organism, maple trees can be the victims of disease (see “13 Common Maple Tree Problems and Diseases” by Charlotte Gerber, https://dengarden.com/landscaping/Maple-Tree-Problems). What would happen if an insect pest or disease rampaged through maple trees? Recall the problems being caused by the emerald ash borer and Dutch elm disease. Or what if climate-change-induced drought or unseasonable warmth at the wrong time curtailed the flow of tree sap, the syrup’s raw ingredient?

In case you’re wondering, I’m not the first to think of this. The maple-syrup industry is already considering these possibilities by investigating the feasibility of producing a similar product using other types of trees. How about birch syrup? Or maybe beech or sycamore syrup? Beech syrup shows promise, with a taste virtually indistinguishable from maple. Birch syrup, which people in Alaska might be familiar with, is more savory and shows potential as a cooking ingredient. If you’re really curious, both these syrups are on the market today.

So far, these alternatives should be considered contingency plans. No one is looking for a replacement, but then no one knows how conditions might change. So keep enjoying your maple syrup, but sometime in the future, be prepared to try something different.

Taken from the Science Friday podcast segment “Making Syrup From More Than Maple Trees.”

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