Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a Nation World News initiative called “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.
For more than four decades, Hue Fong Foods has made its world-famous Sriracha hot sauce in Irwindale, Calif.—until the worsening climate crisis finally took hold of the company.
Extreme heat and drought have affected crops of pepper, from which Sriracha is made, forcing the company to suspend production until at least the fall this year.
It’s not just chili 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 has been the driest on record for the state, affecting its main growing region and most of its crops.
“For pepper and tomato, it’s really more about heat stress. Last week we had … about 40, 41 °C. And pollen basically ends up at this level, so you have to No fruit or flowers are found at these temperatures,” said Alan van Dange, director of the Center for Seed Biotechnology at the University of California Davis.
“And we’re getting more and more of those higher temperatures.”
With the global climate crisis intensifying, California’s challenges are about to get worse, and they could soon overwhelm the food supply in Canada.
Why Canada may be affected
About 20 percent of Canada’s total crop imports come from California alone, which was worth about $2.8 billion in 2021.
In 2020, Canada bought 95 percent of California’s vine and chili pepper exports, and is the biggest buyer of other crops that are hit by extreme weather this year. Among other crops, Canada was the customer for 97 percent of California’s fresh tomato exports, 70 percent of strawberries and 87 percent of lettuce.
California is also in the 22nd year of a historic “megadrought” in the southwestern US. A recent study found that the period 2000–2021 was the driest 21-year period in the region since the year 800, and one of the extraordinary A large part of the dry conditions are due to human-caused climate change.
A prolonged drought has put water restrictions for the state’s farmers who depend on irrigation, as water levels in California’s reservoirs are depleting.
“I don’t think we’ve been challenged like this year. In the past, we’ve always been lucky that we can have two years of drought and then we had a year of floods. We were able to hold that water Because we are all these reservoirs,” Van Dange said.
“So when it’s a flood year… we can fill those reservoirs and release water when we need to. But our reservoirs are 50 to 70 percent full, which is not where we want to be. Sure. Certainly not in June.”
Can Canadian farmers bridge the gap?
While local producers in Canada may fill in some of the gaps, experts say the limited growing season means the country cannot replace all of its food imports at this time.
“I think there may be some shortage. We are just starting our growing season in Canada, so thankfully there are some fruits and vegetables that we commonly import from California, like berries, leafy greens, They can be produced here, which could alleviate some of the potential shortage of products,” said Simon Somogi, professor of food business management at the University of Guelph.
But other foods — almonds, pistachios, table grapes, citrus — don’t grow well in Canadian climates.
“It’s great to produce them in Canada. So there can be some potential shortage of those types of products and that usually leads to higher prices.”
According to the latest report on the impacts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, food production is increasingly being affected in North America. According to the report, climate change has generally reduced productivity by 12.5 percent since 1961, with losses greater as you move south from Canada into the southern US and Mexico.
That means a shortage of Sriracha could be a warning of future disruptions – and highlights the role of local Canadian farmers where they can.
local farms show the way
Haiko Krijsmann grows a variety of hot peppers on his farm just outside Ottawa, and produces a popular range of hot sauces. He says the re-focus on local produce will mean some change for consumers who are used to seeing a variety of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets throughout the year.
“If you really go back to using resources readily available in that season, you rely much less on importing exotic foods from other countries, either America, Europe, you name it. “
Krijsmann hails from the Netherlands, a country smaller in land area than Nova Scotia, but still one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. They do this, Krijsmann said, by using innovative methods such as indoor farming.
“The Netherlands is known for its greenhouses. They grow peppers year-round, and they also do it in an ecological, sustainable way. It’s a process that’s been going on for decades and they’re getting used to,” he said. .
The greenhouse model could help Canada produce food outside of its relatively short growing season. Somogi says that means investing in innovation and helping farmers build the infrastructure they’ll need to grow food during the colder months.
“We can invest more in research and development into fruit and vegetable breeds that will grow better in indoor climates and further our research and development to make greenhouses more efficient,” he said.
“So we’re still going to be dependent on California, but we can really take away some of that dependency by developing our own indoor agriculture sector.”
But greenhouses can come with challenges. Somogi points out that indoor farming can be expensive, with complex technology used to grow it automatically. A recent study also warns that a low-carbon greenhouse depends on where it is located – and is needed if it is close to renewable forms of energy to supply electricity.
Climate disruptions are here too
Uncertain weather and growing seasons are also affecting Canadian producers, which are both at the forefront of adapting to climate change and suffering from its effects.
“We are now experiencing a severe thunderstorm warning here in Ottawa with the potential for tornadoes, which is something that is pretty much unheard of,” Krijsmann explained.
“We had a tornado about four years ago. You can see the weather is changing.”
The short growing season means that Kriegsmann is vulnerable to sudden changes in weather that could put his entire crop at risk. Last year, for example, he says he was harvesting his crops around Thanksgiving in October. A year earlier, an unexpected frost warning forced him to run to his farm in mid-September.
All this makes investment in other forms of agriculture, such as greenhouses, all the more important.
“The nice thing about greenhouses and other forms of indoor farming is that they usually take the climate out of the equation, which means the supply of what they produce is much more stable,” Somogi said. .
With files from Alice Hopton