As Climate Impacts CA’s Ag, the Mississippi Delta Could Be Our Next Bread Basket

California has been an agricultural powerhouse and produces more than 1/3 of the vegetables and 2/3 of fruits and nuts that are grown in the United States. However, climate change is a ticking time bomb for the Golden State’s agricultural industry and will bring changes in precipitation patterns, leading to more drought and more flooding, and spottier water storage.

However, a new report released today by the World Wildlife Fund explored the possibility of shifting some fruit and vegetable production to the mid-Mississippi Delta River region which is currently dominated by row crops. The report finds that while California will continue to be a key agricultural state, the Delta region is well-positioned to supplement fruit and vegetable production, contributing to a more distributed and climate-resilient food system.

According to Julia Kurnik, director of innovation startups at WWF’s Markets Institute, “within the next few decades, the Delta region could supply a significant portion of the country’s fruits and vegetables.”

The Opportunities: Increasing crop production in the Delta region can diversify where crops are grown and hedge the risks of food insecurity. Equally as important is that ag jobs in this region of the country could alleviate widespread poverty and unemployment.

Additionally, this is an opportunity for the United States to serve as an example for tackling climate threats on food systems. As CSIS explained previously, “the United States should claim the mantle of global leadership in responding to the impacts of climate change, double down on domestic efforts to promote climate-smart agriculture, elevate the issue of climate change and food insecurity in national security circles.”

The Challenges: While there are many opportunities, there are also hurdles to shifting agricultural production in the region which need to be explored further:

  • Significant farmer/grower labor education will be needed since at this time farmers in this region produce only cotton, corn, soy, wheat, and rice in significant quantities.
  • Rice will be hard to plant. It is the most popular food worldwide but also the least traded. Even if prices are low, there will likely always be a market, making it a “safe” choice.
  • There is a trained labor shortage for specialty crops.
  • Rainfall is plentiful but the atmosphere is far more humid than California’s Central Valley. Organic crops would be very difficult to grow since the humid air and lack of cold nights means there is a significant pest problem that is not present in the drier California region.
  • Due to pests, lots of chemicals are sprayed on row crops that could carry over to vegetables and fruits located nearby. This is also true of herbicides like dicamba.
  • A current lack of infrastructure for processing, packaging, and shipping specialty produce.

Why This Matters: As a nation, we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to feed ourselves in the era of climate change. While we haven’t felt overwhelming shocks to our food system just yet, it’s only a matter of time before we begin to experience the stresses of a warming planet on the ways in which we grow food (we’re already feeling them in some cases). However, it’s critical that we fully prepare for this reality, which includes ensuring that our immigration system accommodates the necessary workers. One thing that the WWF report made clear is that there currently aren’t enough trained agricultural workers in the Delta due to existing immigration policies.

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