LOS ANGELES — Southern California, where many fruits and vegetables for the country are grown, is experiencing a recording-breaking drought, which could impact world food prices in 2014.
‘Not looking good’
Andy Domenigoni is a fourth generation grower in Riverside, California. He says there are good years and bad years, and this year things are not looking good.
“I have some fields that we planted almost a month ago that are still not out of the ground,” Domenigoni said.
He says normally it takes five to seven days for the wheat to sprout, but not this year. He points to a brown field behind him.
“This field was planted two weeks ago and it is just bone dry. The seed is not in any moisture,” he said. “It can’t sprout. We got to wait for the rain.”
Waiting for rain
Domenigoni is not the only one waiting for rain. The western United States has been in a drought that has been building for more than a decade, according to climatologist Bill Patzert of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Ranchers in the West are selling off their livestock,” Patzert said. “Farmers all over the Southwest, from Texas to Oregon, are fallowing in their fields because of a lack of water. For farmers and ranchers, this is a painful drought.”
It may be painful for those who depend on rain, but Patzert says drought is actually the norm in the history of the American West, with some dry periods that have lasted up to 50 years. In Southern California, this drought is turning into one of the worst in recorded history.
“Historically, in 135 years of record-keeping, this has been the driest,” Patzert said. “Since July 1, we’ve had less than an inch of rain. In January, which is historically our wettest month, we’ve had zero rainfall. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
A drought such as the one in California has a greater impact now than it did 50 years ago because of the growth in population and economic development. The state is the biggest food producer in the United States in terms of dollars of produce sold.
“The short-term impact is going to be higher food prices,” said Milt McGiffen, a field crop expert at the University of California. “The longer-term impact is going to be you’re just not going to have as much production in the country. It’s part of an overall trend in the next 50 years.”
He says as the population increases, the amount for water per person is decreasing.
“Either you’ll find a technological way around it or enough people will die, and the population will crash and it’ll take care of it,” McGiffen said. “So, in cold hard terms, that’s exactly what you’re looking at.”
And what happens in California does not just affect the United States.
”Here in California, we’re the breadbasket of the United States, but also we export tremendous volumes of fruits, vegetables and even cattle overseas,” Patzert said. “And so when these terrible droughts hit and production drops, this echoes around the globe.”
According to the United Nations, global food prices for 2013 were among the highest on record. Food experts in California won’t know how much the drought in the western U.S. will affect the price of food in 2014 until later this year. As for farmers, experts agree there is no quick fix for their need for water.