How the California Megadrought Is Affecting Food Prices thumbnail

How the California Megadrought Is Affecting Food Prices

A patch of damp soil rests amid rows of crops in Lemoore, California.

Photo: Noah Berger (AP)

The West is currently facing its worst megadrought in at least 1,200 years. This has caused multiple states to impose water restrictions, and it doesn’t look like things are going to get better any time soon. Lake Mead’s water supply, which provides water to Arizona, Nevada, and part of Mexico, is currently at its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936. Other reservoirs from Lake Powell to many in California have followed suit.

All of this is causing major problems for farmers in California, Arizona, and beyond. California produces “over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts” and much of its dairy products, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. That means what’s happening in the West is going to have implications for the entire nation. If we don’t move quickly to address climate change and how we manage water resources, this could become a problem that only gets harder to manage every year.

As farmers fight for water, multiple types of food could increase in price due to this megadrought. Timothy Richards, an agricultural economist at Arizona State University, said we’re already starting to see this happen.

“So far we’re seeing avocado prices up 10%,” Richards said. “All of the usual culprits that are water-intensive in California agriculture are starting to increase in prices.”

Richards said he also expects the price of lettuce and tree nuts like almonds and pistachios to go up. Growing tree nuts is highly water-intensive, and some California farmers are already ripping out their almond trees, which is a big deal considering it takes about five years just for a tree to produce enough almonds to start selling them, let alone turn a profit.

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“When you grow those tree crops, that’s a 25-year investment,” Richards said. “Farmers are buying as much water as they can find to feed those crops, because if they lose water for those crops, they lose all of that investment.”

That could have long-term impacts on almond prices given the investment timetable. Other food items could see short-term price increases as well. California produces 100% of U.S.’s sushi rice, an extremely water intensive crop. Due to the drought, it appears its price is also going to increase. Richards said dairy prices may be affected due to the fact that the alfalfa dairy cows eat requires so much water to grow. It’s not just dairy cows either. Levan Elbakidze, an associate professor of agriculture at West Virginia University, said hay prices have increased significantly, which could affect beef prices considering that’s what the cattle eat. He agreed that lettuce and almond prices will likely increase.

Elbakidze said how much food prices will increase will depend on how much we can import and at what price we can import those goods. We may also need to consider shifting where we grow things. He said California grows strawberries, for example, but so does Florida. The latter could increase strawberry production to keep them affordable and readily available, blunting some of the impacts of the drought.

“If this lasts for years, we will see adjustments in our production practices,” Ebdakidze says.

Due to the fact Lake Mead’s water supply is so low, a good year of rain and snowpack wouldn’t be enough to bring it back above drought levels. He said he believes it would require about three wet years to make that happen.

Just as important as the impacts of drought we’re seeing when it comes to record-low reservoirs is how farmers perceive the drought itself. Richards said farmers ripping out almond trees appears to show they see this as a long-term problem, which means there could be significant effects on the U.S. food system regardless of how long the megadrought lasts.

“If they start ripping out those things that are high water use, long-term investments like tree fruits and tree nuts and things like that, that will be the sign that this is a really different sort of drought and that growers expect this thing to be ongoing,” Richards said. “That’s a fundamental change in the structure of California agriculture and, by that token, American agriculture.”

Considering the megadrought is a result of the effects of climate change and climate change isn’t going anywhere, it seems likely this problem will be a long-term one. Not only are farmers having to deal with the drought, but climate change is also causing wildfires in the West to worsen every year, threatening to burn down some crops and make others unsalvageable due to smoke damage. (It also creates dangerous conditions for farmworkers.)

Farmers are exploring other possibilities, including dry-farming techniques, that rely on less water and improving efficiency through other means. Bringing down the cost of desalination—turning saltwater from the ocean into freshwater—is a more long-term strategy to help farmers. But in the meantime, farmers in the West will have to make tough decisions about what they can afford to keep watering and how they can use water as sustainably as possible.

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to Gizmodo, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, NBC News and many other publications. 

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