Historic drought in California threatens US food security

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Severe droughts in California, the leading US agricultural state, have resulted in crop revenue losses of at least $3 billion over the past two years, according to a study prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The research revealed that surface water deliveries in the Central Valley as a whole have been reduced by as much as 43% in 2021 and 2022, forcing Californian farmers to leave over 1.3 million acres unplanted, the most idled acreage in recent memory.

The Central Valley, home to nearly a quarter of all US planted food, including 40% of fruits and nuts, has reportedly borne the brunt so far, with vines and vegetables the main source of revenue loss.

“Strategic short term land idling was the most common cropping decision adaptation in this drought,” the report reads. “Some crops such as rice, and other field and grain crops showed extensive idling,” while production of beef and milk were “lower than they would have been.”

Some 70% of irrigated land in the Colorado River Basin is used to grow feed for livestock, and the drought is inevitably sending prices for such crops soaring, according to the report.

The situation could worsen further, as the state’s southern farming areas reliant on water from a shrinking Colorado River are likely to see more fallowing in 2023, according to Josue Medellin-Azuara, a University of California Merced professor who led the analysis as cited by Bloomberg.

A study released earlier this year by the National Climate Change journal found that the US Southwest has suffered its driest 22-year period in at least 1,200 years. Lake Mead is fed by the Colorado River, and its supplies are strained by overuse even under normal weather conditions.

Last year, the US federal government declared an unprecedented water shortage in Lake Mead and the Lower Colorado River Basin, warning of supply cuts. A Colorado River pact signed in 1922 governs water management affecting seven states – California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

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