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For more than four decades, Huy Fong Foods made its world-famous sriracha hot sauce in Irwindale, California, until the worsening climate crisis finally caught up with the company.
Intense heat and drought have hit the hot pepper crops from which sriracha is made, forcing the company to halt production until at least autumn this year.
It’s not just the peppers in trouble. California, a major supplier of fruits and vegetables to Canada and the rest of the United States, is now in its third year of severe drought. This year was the driest on record for the state, affecting its main growing region and most of its crops.
“For bell pepper and tomatoes, it’s really more a matter of heat stress. Last week we had… around 40, 41 degrees Celsius. And the pollen basically aborts at that point, so you don’t get fruit or flowers at those temperatures,” said Allen Van Deynze, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.
“And we’re getting more and more of these high temperatures.”
With the global climate crisis accelerating, California’s challenges are expected to worsen and could soon impact Canada’s food supply.
Why Canada could be affected
About 20% of Canada’s total crop imports come from California alone, worth about $2.8 billion in 2021.
In 2020, Canada bought 95% of California’s pepper and chili exports and is the largest buyer of other crops that are affected by extreme weather this year. Canada was the customer for 97% of California’s fresh tomato exports, 70% of its strawberries and 87% of its lettuce, among other crops.
California is also in the 22nd year of a historic “mega-drought” in the southwestern United States. A recent study found that the period from 2000 to 2021 was the region’s driest 21-year period since the year 800, and much of the dry conditions are due to human-caused climate change.
The prolonged drought has resulted in water restrictions for farmers in the state who rely on irrigation as water levels drop in California reservoirs.
“I don’t think we were challenged like this year. In the past, we were always lucky to have two years of drought and then a year of flooding. We were able to capture that water because we all have these tanks,” Van Deynze said.
“So when it’s a flood year…we can fill those reservoirs and release the water when we need it. But our reservoirs are 50-70% full, which is not what we like. be. Certainly not in June.”
Can Canadian farmers close the gap?
While local producers in Canada can fill some of the gaps, experts say the limited growing season means the country cannot replace all of its food imports at the moment.
“I think there could be shortages. We are just starting our growing season in Canada, so fortunately some of the fruits and vegetables that we typically import from California, such as berries, leafy greens, can be produced here, which could alleviate some potential product shortages.” said Simon Somogyi, professor of food business management at the University of Guelph.
But other foods — almonds, pistachios, table grapes, citrus fruits — don’t grow well in Canadian climates.
“It’s just too cool in Canada to produce them. So there could be potential shortages of these types of products, which usually leads to higher prices.
According to the latest report on the impacts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, food production in North America is increasingly affected. Climate change has generally reduced productivity by 12.5% since 1961, the report found, with greater losses as you move from Canada to the southern United States and Mexico.
This means the Sriracha shortage could be a warning of future disruptions – and highlights the role of local Canadian farmers to fill in where they can.
Local farms lead the way
Haico Krijgsman grows a wide variety of hot peppers on his farm just outside of Ottawa and produces a popular line of hot sauces. He says the refocus on local produce will bring about changes for consumers who are used to seeing many varieties of fruit and vegetables all year round in supermarkets.
“If you go back to using resources that are readily available in the season you’re in, you rely much less on importing exotic foods from other countries, whether it’s America, Europe, etc. .”, did he declare.
Krijgsman hails from the Netherlands, a country smaller than Nova Scotia, but still one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. They do this, Krijgsman said, using innovative methods like indoor farming.
“The Netherlands is known for its greenhouses. They grow peppers all year round, and they also do it in an ecological and sustainable way. It’s a process that has been going on for decades and they adapt”, a- he added. he said.
The greenhouse model could help Canada produce food outside of its relatively short growing season. Somogyi says that means investing in innovation and helping farmers build the infrastructure they would need to grow food in the colder months.
“We could invest more in research and development of fruit and vegetable breeds that will grow better in indoor climates and also do more research and development to make greenhouses more efficient,” he said.
“So we’re still going to be dependent on California, but we could reduce some of that dependency by really developing our own indoor farming industry.”
But greenhouses can present challenges. Somogyi points out that indoor farming can be expensive, with complex technology used to automate cultivation. A recent study also warned that a low-carbon greenhouse depends on where it is – and whether it’s close to renewable forms of energy to provide the electricity it needs.
Climate change is there too.
Uncertain weather and growing seasons also impact Canadian growers, who are both at the forefront of adapting to climate change and suffering from its effects.
“We are currently experiencing a severe thunderstorm warning here in Ottawa with the possibility of tornadoes, which is pretty much unheard of,” Krijgsman said.
“We had a tornado about four years ago. You can see the weather changing.”
The short growing season means that Krijgsman is also vulnerable to sudden weather changes which can jeopardize his entire crop. Last year, for example, he says he harvested his crop around Thanksgiving in October. The year before, he had to rush to his field in mid-September due to an unexpected frost warning.
All of this makes it more important to invest in other forms of agriculture, such as greenhouses.
“The good thing about greenhouses and other forms of indoor farming is that they generally take the climate out of the equation, which means the supply of what they produce is much more stable,” Somogyi said.
With files by Alice Hopton