American agriculture is going to have to do without three things that it has long taken for granted, according to a recent article by Chloe Sorvino, who leads food and agriculture coverage for Forbes.
Those things are cheap energy, free water, and a reliable climate.
“The whole system does not function” without those things, says David Barber, a partner at agriculture and food investors Astanor Ventures, as quoted in the Forbes article. “It reveals some of this for the house of cards that it is.”
“Most affected are almonds, olive oil and other specialty produce from California’s Central Valley, as well as citrus, grape and salad farms elsewhere in the state,” Sorvino writes.
Permanent crops are obviously more vulnerable than annual ones. If the latter are plowed under or the land for them is fallowed, there is always next year. But trees and vines take a certain number of years to mature and produce.
To say that water in California is free is simply not true. In fact it has been getting more and more expensive, as the state’s unimaginably complex water system has to satisfy environmental, residential, and industrial needs as well as farming.
Current views assume that the drought conditions prevailing in the western United States will continue indefinitely. This may not prove true—history shows other decades-long patterns of drought followed by normal rainfall—but human decision makers have to act as if it is.
Thinking about climate change has changed radically over recent years. Once derided by many as speculation, it is now taken for granted not as future possibility but as present fact.
“It’s happening already,” says R.V. Guha, a Google Fellow who created a public database mapping the use of irrigation water against projected temperature rises.
Dr. YongJiang Zhang, an assistant professor of plant physiology at the School of Biology and Ecology who led the study, tells the state’s blueberry farmers, “We need to be prepared.”
Zhang says that northern blueberry barrens in Maine are warming faster than ones in the south, and coastal fields are warming faster than inland fields.
The warming has both positive and negative effects, says Zhang. Warmer weather could mean longer growing seasons, which could increase both quantity and quality if the bushes are given enough water and nutrients. But if they blossom too early in the spring, they risk frost damage.
One solution that we are hearing more and more about is regenerative agriculture. Although it is not as rigorously defined as organic farming, for which there are clear USDA specifications, it is used to refer to “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity—resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle,” according to the website Regeneration International.