There’s a 2,200-acre island in Louisiana where very few people live, but many pepper plants reside. In the mid-1860s, former New Orleans banker E. McIlhenny began to grow peppers on Avery Island, eventually creating his own hot sauce. The hot sauce was such a hit that he decided to market it as Tabasco sauce. By the end of the 1870s, the sauce was being shipped worldwide.
Now, more than 150 years later, Tabasco Sauce is in danger. Avery Island is losing 30 feet of coastline a year to erosion, and there’s concern that rising sea levels due to climate change will damage the pepper farms, reports The Guardian. As the salty sea water comes further into the island, it kills off vegetation. As waters rise, there’s a danger that only the center of the island will remain dry.
And it’s not just climate change that’s threatening Avery Island. Canals, dug by the oil and gas industries, also allow sea water to get onto the island.
The peppers are grown on the island for their seeds, and those seeds are then sent elsewhere to grow peppers that make the sauce. The peppers could be grown somewhere else, but the company doesn’t want to see that happen. According to Tony Simmons, the seventh consecutive McIlhenny family member to run the Tabasco company, the island is more than a business; it’s the family’s home. So the family members are doing what they can to protect the marshes that surround the island — which is actually a salt dome — so the marshes can protect the business and home.
A salt dome is a massive underground salt deposit built up over tens of thousands of years, formed where shallow seas once existed, according to Burn. The mushroom-shaped dome was covered with thick sediment over time. When the sediment turned into rock it put pressure on the salt, causing it to become plastic and putty-like. That salt pushed up to the ground, creating a mound. There are about 500 salt domes in the country, all near the Gulf Coast, and all face the same threat as Avery Island.
Avery Island has one thing those other islands don’t, and that’s the Tabasco business. Simmons says they are working aggressively to deter land loss. After Hurricane Rita in 2005, they build a 17-foot earth levee with a pump system that wraps around the production factory. They’re restoring wetlands, refilling canals, and keeping the advance of salt water at bay with weirs, which are barriers that regulate the flow of water. They’re also protecting land on the island for wildlife.
In reality, hot sauce is not in danger. Like Simmons said, the peppers can be grown elsewhere. What is in danger, though, is land all around the Gulf Coast. And, using the fear of endangered hot sauce is a powerful way to get people’s attention about the problems in the waters and the land being lost.