California has been sunny and dry as a bone this winter. While that might sound nice to those of us who endured brutal winter conditions elsewhere, drought has been wrecking havoc with California’s agriculture industry and water supply. This is the state’s third year of drought, with 2013 being the driest year on record. About 95% of California remains in drought as of late March, with conditions ranging in severity from moderate to exceptional, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
What Will Happen to Food Prices?
The state of California is the biggest producer of agricultural products in the United States. So it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a .4 % rise in food prices between January and February of this year, due in part to the conditions in California. An earlier report predicted a rise of as much as 3.5% this year, which would be the biggest annual increase in three years. Add to that a serious drought in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, and we could be looking at considerable increases in food prices across the board. But will it impact California agriculture for generations, as some forecasters predict?
Experts seem to agree that the drought will impact food prices in the coming year, though with predictions ranging from .4% to 20%, they have yet to agree on how much and how soon. Jay Lund, a water expert at the University of California-Davis, theorizes that ongoing water problems could mean that agriculture “may soon play a less important role in California’s economy, as the business of growing food moves to the South and the Midwest, where water is less expensive,” according to Mother Jones. Lund isn’t the only expert who thinks California could be in for some long-term changes. “We’re really concerned about the extent to which acreage is being taken out of action,” Richard Volpe, an economist in the Foods Markets Branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told San Jose’s Mercury News. “The real economic impact is long term and will be felt down the road, when there will be a structural shift in prices,” he said. Milt McGriffen, a production agriculture crop specialist at UC Riverside, downplayed food prices to Modern Farmer. After all, America still spends less at the grocery store than any nation on earth. In his opinion we should be more concerned about the farmers that will inevitably go out of business due to the drought.
To put it in perspective, California supplies almost half of all U.S. fruits, vegetables and nuts. That means 99% of all U.S. almonds and walnuts, 98% of U.S. pistachios, 95% of U.S. broccoli, 92% of our strawberries, 91% of our grapes, and the list goes on. As a result, the whole country has a lot invested in the water supply of California. Unfortunately the drought has been most intense in California’s most agricultural areas.
Even though other states can kick up production of things like lettuce and strawberries in spring and summer to make up for some of California’s losses, foods like almonds, dates, figs, plums, raisin grapes, olives, pistachios, pomegranates, walnuts and kiwi are specific to California’s Mediterranean climate. Meat and dairy prices also account for a large part of the surge in food prices. As the Wall Street Journal [paywall] points out, this is due in part to the cumulative effect of year after year droughts in states like Texas and California where cattle supplies are tight after farmers were forced to cull herds they couldn’t afford to feed.
The drought has also impacted the salmon population in California, with waterways too dry to support the migration of juvenile chinook salmon to the ocean. Federal officials will be using tanker trucks to transport fish from Coleman National Fish Hatchery near Red Bluff to the Sacramento River, in the delta town of Rio Vista, where they can finish their migration to the ocean. According to NPR, “Officials worry that this hitchhike for the fish will disrupt their ability to ‘imprint.’ That refers to the process by which the fish learn the location of their home waters so they can return there from the ocean in three or four years in order to spawn.” Obviously, completing the migration of fish by tanker truck is not ideal for many reasons, and just goes to show how desperate the situation has become in California.
On the topic of desperate measures, there has been a burst of interest in dowsers or “water witches.” Dowsers use divining rods in an unconventional technique said to help find water deep underground. Farmers looking to drill more groundwater wells pay them as much as $500 per visit. Even though there is no scientific basis for the practice, huge vineyards like Bronco Wine Company and vineyard owners like Marc Mondavi believe in and practice dowsing on their land.
Food - Fuel Connection
With our biggest agricultural producer in the throes of an historic drought that has gone on for years, U.S. consumers are bound to feel the effects at the grocery store. The cumulative effect of multiple years of drought compounds the problem and jeopardizes American food security further. This highlights just how linked food and fuel are. When we can’t truck our produce from water-starved California, we start importing more food from other countries, using more oil. When salmon can’t make it through California’s dry rivers, we use trucks to take them to the sea. What happens if fuel prices spike during a lengthy drought? Many argue that our dependence on oil could be inflaming drought conditions, or at the very least causing more unpredictable weather and climate change.
None of these are simple issues to sort out, but we’re hoping the conditions in California help bring to light the need for growing local and sustainable agriculture practices nationwide to strengthen our food security.