California’s Drought & The Future of our Food Security

drought corn crop

With Thanksgiving coming up, it’s harvest season — historically a time of celebration of bounty. It’s when we joyously fill our kitchens and bellies with all the local produce grown by farmers we know by name.

Or that used to be the case, anyhow. These days, you’re more likely to see the date on the calendar and head to the superstore down the street to get produce grown “anywhere but here” for a holiday that’s become more about family and a day off than it is about the land and its gifts to us.

Today, we’re staring down the prospect of climate change and how it’s affecting two very important things — food security and food sovereignty — and with Thanksgiving coming up, it’s time to give our future of food a little thought.

What’s food security?

My generation, the Xers,  are some of those realizing just how badly we lost the plot on food security. As I write, California is in the grips of the fiercest drought in our lifetime, and the rest of the continent is held hostage by their threatened agricultural output.

“Food security” is defined by the World Food Summit as ““when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”

When we gave the keys to our food security to California, Mexico, Florida, or anywhere else your food’s imported from, we made the market too hard for local farmers to compete in. As a result, small local producers sort of vanished to make way for the heavily subsidized same-same produce from Big Farm Agriculture.

Moving in the wrong direction

A case in point is where I live, on Canada’s Vancouver Island, which was as “food secure” as it gets back in the ‘60s, growing nearly 85% of the food consumed by the islanders. By 2004, that fell to only 5% of island-consumed food produced on the island. That’s food insecurity, if anything.

Overnight, subsidized imported foods made local farming untenable here and many lands went to pasture. With lower prices came people being able to eat more at a better budget, but that bubble was an unrealistic model to sustain.

The lack of sustainability in these food-insecure agricultural models we’ve turned to since the ‘70s is blowing up in our faces. Where I live, California’s ongoing drought means imported produce prices are expected to skyrocket 34% in this coming year alone.

vegetables grow your own food

The rise of food sovereignty

And then there is the matter of food sovereignty, a phrase coined by La Via Campesina, the “International Peasant’s Movement.”

“Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

This includes ideas like rejecting the “patented seeds” of corporations like Monsanto and returning to the ancient practice of farmers saving heirloom seeds for the following year’s crops. It’s about eating local food grown without pesticides, or having the right to forage for foods growing on public lands. It’s even about intervening with public policy to ensure agricultural lands are protected and harvest regions remain secured for future generations.

If you’re a fan of shopping in local Farmer’s Markets, you’re both ensuring the future for your local food supply is secure, while celebrating the idea of food sovereignty.

Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown

California’s drought is a worldwide game-changer, and its food production might never be the same. This isn’t a fatalist prediction, it’s simply doing the math. Without the aquifers or ground waters, California agriculture can’t be sustained. Anyone who’s ever seen the movie Chinatown knows this isn’t a new situation. Like Noah Cross says in the movie, “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.” Well, the water’s been brought to California for so long, there’s not much left to bring.

In fact, recent reports show the aquifers that are the lifeblood of California’s agricultural lands are getting depleted with unbelievable speed, and it’s not something that can be reversed overnight or likely even in a century.

water irrigation pipe california

We all have to be the solution

But California should never have had the keys to the continent’s food security. That was a fool’s game from the start. We all have a responsibility to manage our own regional food supply. If you can’t live on the land you’re living on, doesn’t it go without saying you should live elsewhere? With the drought in California and the rise of the “eat local” movement, it’s becoming more clear that we all have to be the solution.

While more expensive imported food will be crippling to those already living in marginalized lives with inconceivably tight incomes, it will finally be the catalyst for the return of local food, local farming, and sustainable practices.

A pricier produce means more local lands gone to pasture will be converted to farmland. It means more communities will create communal gardens. It means cities like Seattle have begun thinking outside the breadbox to solve food issues on a community level by planting a “Food Park” where civic foraging for fruit, nuts, and anything else that grows there is A-okay.

Darkest before dawn

This coming winter will likely have some of the most expensive food prices that any of us have seen in our lifetimes. That’s no good. Necessity, though, is the mother of invention, and while we might not be re-inventing the wheel by giving community agriculture a big comeback, we’ll certainly be inventing a new way of life for the future that capitalizes on practices of the past.

It’s through high food prices that we’ll finally be forced to take steps to secure our own local food production, and restore control over what it is we eat.

This winter, learn about what community gardening opportunities exist where you are, and plan ahead so you can share in taking control over your local harvest for 2015.

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