How the US drought may change your dinner plans

By Barbara Kessler
GRN Reports

Since we became a nation of urban dwellers, we've inevitably lost touch with the weather and how it sustains us. We in the concrete cities and burbs have come to see bad weather as a threat to our roof shingles and perhaps to our turf and decorative shrubs. Bad weather is a moody day or a phone call to an insurance adjuster.

CA Central Valley from USGS
This map shows the ideally situated Central Valley, fed by rivers and snow melts, and protected on either side by mountains, making it a haven for produce and many other types of agriculture.

But there's a whole sphere of existence out there beyond the Shake ‘n Steaks that depends mightily upon the proper sunshine, rainfall and temperatures for its livelihood, and also ours. Whether or not we recognize it, we depend upon that hazy hinterland that's visible in patchy glimpses through car and airplane windows.

We got a grim peek behind the agricultural curtain last week when our beloved healthy lunch-maker, Chipotle, champion of humane pork and friend to vegetarians, announced in its annual report that climate change may soon deprive it (and therefore us) of affordably accessing some key ingredients, like avocado or certain salsa components. (The restaurant noted that US drought had already raised its meat prices.)

Avocados, known to us city folk as a "healthy fat", a fresh food and an imperative in my black bean burrito, are actually grown on trees in California, Florida and across Mexico.
Many of the avocado-growing areas in California are getting drier, and avocado trees need a warm and wet environment. Their future is not assured.

Hurts doesn't it? To think about a Mexican meal without guacamole. Imagine how much worse it is for the avocado farmer who cannot adequately irrigate the crop because the snowpack and rainfall that s/he depends up has been inadequate, and with water demands from swelling cities increasing, irrigation could be headed for rationing.

Climate change and resource depletion are converging and threatening to make a miserable mess of what has been a thriving $400 million industry. And just as we cannot click our ruby heels to take away the pain of the lingering dryness in the Midwest, which has singed the livestock industry, there's no getting around the fact that a massive drought has now extended its dark shadow over California's great Central Valley as well.

This virtual paradise of diverse fruits, vegetables and nuts is the US cradle of fresh foods, some of which, like almonds, are grown in no other state.

The diversity of plant life supported in this area, which extends from Bakersfield to Redding, is boggling. Lettuce just say even an 8-year-old could see it is berry important to the healthier diets we're adopting! You would be hard-pressed to fill a plate with fruits and vegetables without tapping something from California. Broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes. If it's healthy, it's grown in the Valley. Need some rice for that stir fry? That too comes from this little swath of land that's less than 1 percent of all the farmland in the US but provides 8 percent of all US agricultural output (by value), according to the US Geological Survey.

Drought map for March 2014
The drought outlook for March 2014 predicts dry weather will continue, imperiling crops in California, and across the Southwest and Midwest.

Now here's a look at the US drought map (above). The dark brown, signifying the worst hit areas, pretty much eclipses the Valley if you overlay the two maps. The drought map also shows that even coastal California has not escaped the drought, though it's less severe there.

Avocado land, which pushes south from the Central Valley to areas around San Diego and the Mexican border, falls into both the drought area predicted to worsen and the area expected to improve.

California Valley 2 -- USDA map showing variety grown there
USDA stats show the fertile crescent that produces massive amounts of beans, berries, potatoes, greens and dozens of other crops.

And finally, a third map, this one showing the growing regions in the Central Valley and illustrating the diversity of the Valley's food production, depicted in a rainbow of colors designating many of the region's 250 different crops.

This map hints at what an economic powerhouse the Valley has been. The cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and tree nuts produced in this region have an annual market value of nearly $17 billion, according to the latest USDA figures.

So California depends greatly upon its agriculture. As do we all.

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