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global food security

Dried grass is pictured at a vista point near Woodside, California July 22, 2014. California is in the midst of the driest year in the state’s history. In B.C., which over the past 20 years has relied increasingly on crops from California, food security experts describe the situation as alarming.ROBERT GALBRAITH/Reuters

This article is part of Globe B.C.'s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada. Visit this page for the rest of the series so far.

When California Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide emergency in January, there was hope water conservation and increased pumping from aquifers could blunt the impact of a withering drought.

Now, as the driest year in the state's history is coming to a close, the aquifers are so overdrawn there are concerns about long-term damage – and the National Weather Service is predicting a fourth year of drought.

The dry spell, which some studies blame on climate change, is raising concerns about future food price hikes across North America.

In B.C., which over the past 20 years has relied increasingly on crops from California, food security experts describe the situation as alarming.

If California's agriculture productivity collapses "we'd be in huge trouble," says Brent Mansfield, co-chair of the BC Food Systems Network.

"The urgency is … as prices go up, will we be able to [afford to] put food on the table?" Mr. Mansfield asks. "First off, they are going to feed their own and then they are going to feed those who can pay the most. And that might not be us."

Mr. Mansfield recently wrote a report predicting produce prices in B.C. could jump by 25 per cent to 50 per cent over the next five years as California's productivity declines.

This year, rice production in California fell by 20 per cent, cotton was down 32 per cent and 170,000 hectares of farmland were fallowed, putting more than 6,000 farm labourers out of work. Revenue losses and the higher expenses of pumping water cost the state $2.2-billion (U.S.).

It could get worse next year.

In a recent report, the Association of California Water Agencies warned "a dry 2015 would have disastrous consequences," which could include the complete failure of the state's $1-billion annual cotton crop; the death of 20,000 hectares of citrus trees and the exodus from the state of non-farm businesses that rely heavily on water.

"Hundreds of thousands of acres of annual and permanent crops throughout the state would be idled," the report says. "For consumers it means loss of jobs and higher prices for food and other products. It also means less locally produced food, which affects food security and our carbon footprint."

Mr. Mansfield said while California's loss of productivity will be felt across North America, B.C. is particularly vulnerable because of a shift in the province to imported produce. B.C.'s vegetable production fell more than 20 per cent between 1991 and 2011. Currently, more than 67 per cent of all B.C. vegetable imports come from the United States, with more than half that coming from California.

"We've seen a decline of [B.C.] staple crops in the past 20 years," he said. "We've more or less stopped growing the crops we are now reliant on California for. … We are importing from California when we could be producing it ourselves."

Broccoli, lettuce, strawberries and other crops that used to be grown in B.C. for consumption there are now largely imported from south of the border.

At the same time, he said, B.C. growers have shifted increasingly to export crops, growing more cherries and blueberries, for example, because of overseas demand.

B.C., Mr. Mansfield said, needs a dramatic shift back to local supply, and that means getting more agricultural land into production.

"Hopefully, this is a wake-up call for us," he said.

Kent Mullinix, director, Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said the drought dramatically underscores the need for B.C. to produce more food locally.

"We have messed up the climate. We have changed the climate, which is going to have profound effects on weather patterns and the incidence of severe weather events," he said. "So our dependence on food from anywhere is iffy, much less central and southern California or Mexico. And that's just all there is to it."

Dr. Mullinix is working on a project to figure out how B.C. can best maximize the agricultural productivity of its different bio-regions. The goal is to provide a road map that will show how each environmentally distinct region can develop its own food system networks, where everything from genetic research, through production and processing, is done within that region.

He says this "re-regionalizing" of B.C.'s agriculture industry is urgent in the face of a changing climate.

"A sustainable food system has to be seen as the basis of a sustainable society in British Columbia, and elsewhere," said Dr. Mullinix. "We are blessed with natural resources to achieve what maybe other areas can't achieve as easily or as broadly. … And what we need to do and what we can do and what I think we're in a better position to do than any other jurisdiction, is to figure out how to re-regionalize our food systems."

He is working with several municipal and regional governments interested in encouraging the development of local food systems, and hopes the California drought will spur action at the provincial level.

"The fact of the matter is we can't count on agriculture from anyplace, any more," said Dr. Mullinix. "Even if California doesn't suffer a drought next year, it might very well suffer the most devastating drought that it's ever experienced the year after that – and we will be without fruit and vegetables."

Shifting to regional production, and moving away from imports from massive, industrial scale farms in distant jurisdictions will be good environmentally, socially and economically, he said.

"The beauty of it is we will, through our food systems, start reconnecting with our environment and the environmental capacity of the place we live. I mean, connect our being with the place we live," said Dr. Mullinix. " I believe we can substantially enhance our regional economies. I think we can create a huge number of jobs, and I think we can probably produce more nutritious, wholesome foods."

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