Drought and the future of food

The almond harvest is almost complete in California, where a drought that may rank as the harshest in 500 years is pushing the price of one of the world’s favorite snacks to record levels. The drought is also boosting vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy product prices, and there’s no end in sight. “The price has never been this high,” says Tom Frantz, 64, who has been growing almonds for thirty years on his family farm in California’s Central Valley. Wholesale almond prices had already risen about 10 percent in anticipation of the drought, explains Frantz, who expects another 10 to 15 percent increase going forward.

California produces more than half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables consumed in the United States, including over 90 percent of walnuts, broccoli, strawberries, grapes and tomatoes. The state’s mega-drought thus helps explain why US food prices have risen this summer, jumping by 0.4 percent in July alone—the fifth increase of that size or higher in the previous six months.

The pain is felt most acutely in California itself. The state’s $45 billion agricultural sector has lost an estimated $2.5 to $7 billion in production and a staggering 20,000 jobs, often among the state’s poorest workers, as fields have been fallowed for lack of water.

There are many steps California—and the nation—can take to cope with drought, and that’s a good thing, because climate change is making drought an inescapable part of our future. Over half of the US is currently suffering some degree of drought, reports the US Geological Survey. In August, Arizona’s Lake Mead—the nation’s largest reservoir, supplying water to 25 million people and vast areas of farmland—dropped to its lowest level ever after one of the worst regional droughts in 1,200 years. By 2050, record drought will become the norm across the western third of the US, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Adapting to mega-droughts will be challenging—and grow more so the longer that action is delayed. Oddly, the good news is that many current practices are so wasteful that common sense conservation measures can “find” new water supplies despite a lack of rainfall.

Improved efficiency in water use could save 34 to 44 percent of California’s consumption, according to a June 2014 study by the Pacific Institute—one of the world’s leading authorities on water and climate change—and the Natural Resource Defense Council.

Fixing leaky pipes is the place to start. The study found that California would use 15 percent less water if homeowners, businesses and water utilities simply repaired leaks and shifted to more efficient appliances and drought-tolerant landscaping.

Because agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world’s water—and 80 percent of California’s—it must be the primary focus. The study found that agriculture could deliver fully half of the potential savings in California’s total water use, and do so without reducing tilled acreage or switching crop types.

Most savings would come from modernizing irrigation—for example, by installing super-efficient “drip irrigation” systems, as Tom Frantz has done. Snaking along the ground beneath his almond trees are black hoses the width of a man’s finger. The hoses apply water directly to trees’ roots rather than soaking the entire area, slashing water usage.

Government policies need reforming too. Astonishingly, until now groundwater use has not been regulated in California. Landowners have been free to dig deeper and deeper wells, depleting groundwater faster than nature replenishes it. And it took the mega-drought to get the legislature in August to finally approve regulation of groundwater in the state’s most critical water basins.

California is known as the place where the future happens first, and the current mega-drought underlines the point. As climate change intensifies, the rest of the world will experience its own versions of the stresses afflicting California today.

Learn from California’s mistakes! Instead of playing catch up, governments, businesses and citizens should act now to prepare for the hot, chaotic climate that lies ahead. Above all, they should join the fast-growing transition to solar, wind and other clean energy sources. For in the end, the only way to survive global warming is to stop it.

Journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of six books, including, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.  2014 www.blueridgepress.com.



Published: Oct. 9, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 26