California Wildfires: The Enormous Effect on Our Food Supply

California Wildfires: The Enormous Effect on Our Food Supply

December 9, 2020

By RDBA CEO Phil Lempert

There is no doubt that being a farmer or farm worker this year has been treacherous. Not only have they had to deal with COVID-19, which has left many farmers with a substantially reduced labor force, but then, came the wildfires. The California governor’s office reports that farmers and rancher in the state report a 50% decrease in their production just due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The combination of both of these events will have an effect on what is on our supermarket shelves, in particular in the produce department. One third of the nation’s vegetables and 50% of fruit and nuts are grown in California.

California is known for its lettuce, almonds, strawberries, raisins, oranges, cauliflower, grapes, pistachios, onions, spinach, carrot crops and wines. In recent discussions I have had with farmers and the heads of their trade groups, they all point to labor as the number one topic that keeps them up at night. They simply do not have enough farm workers to harvest the crops that have survived the areas touched by the wildfires to bring their crops to market. 

And there are two reasons: the COVID-19 outbreak has affected the workforce and taken them off the fields and the smoke from the nearby wildfires has made it unsafe to be outdoors both for the workers and livestock. Some workers have been issued PPE, some have not. Some workers are undocumented and some are not. It’s at best a fragile workforce that this year, more than ever, is under attack.

As we struggle to fix the supply chain issues that were apparent during the pandemic, Mother Nature has made getting our crops to market even more difficult; and many crops are being plowed under as the lack of workers make it more difficult than we have ever experienced. The result? We will be seeing lots of crops not making it to our supermarket shelves this season.

Then there is reason number two, the obvious one – over three million acres have been destroyed by over 8,000 fires (a record for California who each season is affected by dozens or hundreds of wildfires) – and some of those acres are those where we grow our foods. Those crops have been destroyed and even more important is the soil in which they grew is now contaminated, and according to some experts for many harvests to come. The FDA has stated, “toxic elements, firefighting chemicals, and combustion products such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxins are of greatest concerns.”

So what does this all mean for your store’s produce department? For now, higher prices, a more limited supply and an increased concern about the residue that may have been caused by the wildfires. 

What is happening as a result? A huge influx of VC capital to fund indoor and vertical farms that are located throughout the United States in controlled environments, which can grow produce faster and safer. 

We may not be able to control climate changes and weather events, but we can control the safety and quality of our food supply.