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For over four decades, Huy Fong Foods has made its world-famous sriracha hot sauce in Irwindale, Calif. — until the worsening climate crisis finally caught up with the company.
Severe heat and drought have hit the hot pepper crops sriracha is made from, forcing the company to suspend production until at least the fall this year.
It’s not just peppers in trouble. California, a major supplier of fruits and vegetables to Canada and the rest of the US, is now in the third year of a severe drought. This year has been the dries on record for the state, impacting its main growing region and most of its crops.
“For pepper and tomatoes, it’s really more about heat stress. Last week we had … about 40, 41 degrees Celsius. And the pollen basically aborts at this stage, so you don’t get fruit or flowers set at these temperatures,” said Allen Van Deynze, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at University of California Davis.
“And we’re getting more and more of those high temperatures.”
With the global climate crisis accelerating, California’s challenges are set to worsen, and they could soon impact food supply in Canada.
Why Canada might be impacted
About 20 per cent of Canada’s total crop imports come from California alone, worth about $2.8 billion in 2021.
In 2020, Canada bought 95 per cent of California’s bell and chili pepper exports, and is the largest buyer of other crops that are being hit by the extreme weather this year. Canada was the customer for 97 per cent of California’s fresh tomato exports, 70 per cent of its strawberries and 87 per cent of its lettuce, among other crops.
California is also in the 22nd year of a historic “megadrought” in the southwestern US A recent study found that the period from 2000-2021 was the dries 21-year period in the region since the year 800, and a large share of the exceptionally dry conditions are due to human-caused climate change.
The prolonged drought has led to water restrictions for the state’s farmers who rely on irrigation, because water levels are dwindling in California’s reservoirs.
“I don’t think we’ve been challenged like this year. In the past, we’ve always been lucky that we might have two years of drought and then we had a flood year. We were able to capture that water because we have all these reservoirs,” Van Deynze said.
“So when it’s a flood year … we can fill those reservoirs and release the water when we need it. But our reservoirs are 50 to 70 per cent full, which is not where we like to be. Certainly not in June.”
Can Canadian farmers plug the gap?
While local growers in Canada can fill some of the gaps, experts say the limited growing season means the country cannot replace all of its food imports at the moment.
“I think there could be some shortages. We’re just starting our growing season in Canada, so thankfully some of the fruits and vegetables that we typically import from California, such as the berries, the leafy greens, they can be produced here, which could lessen some potential shortages of products,” said Simon Somogyi, professor of food business management at the University of Guelph.
But other foods — almonds, pistachios, table grapes, citrus — don’t grow well in Canadian climates.
“It’s just too cool in Canada to produce them. So there could be some potential shortages of those types of products and that typically leads to higher prices.”
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Change’s latest report on impacts, food production in North America is affected. Climate change has generally reduced productivity by 12.5 per cent since 1961, according to the report, with greater losses as you move south from Canada into the southern US and Mexico.
This means the Sriracha shortage could be a warning of future disruptions — and spotlights the role of local Canadian farmers in filling where they can.
Local farms show the way
Haico Krijgsman grows a wide variety of hot peppers at his farm just outside Ottawa, and produces a popular line of hot sauces. He says that refocusing on local produce will mean some changes for consumers who are used to seeing many varieties of fruits and vegetables year-round in supermarkets.
“If you go back to actually using the resources that are readily available in the season that you’re in, you rely a lot less on getting exotic foods imported from other countries, either America, Europe, you name it,” he said.
Krijgsman is from The Netherlands, a country smaller in land area than Nova Scotia, but nevertheless one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. They do this, Krijgsman said, by using innovative methods like indoor farming.
“The Netherlands is known for its greenhouses. They do grow peppers year round, and they do it in an ecological, sustainable way as well. It has been a process that has been going on for decades now and they’ve been adapting,” he said.
The greenhouse model could help Canada produce food outside its relatively short growing season. Somogyi says that means investing in innovation and helping farmers build the infrastructure they would need to grow food in the colder months.
“We could be investing more into research and development into fruits and vegetable breeds that will grow better in indoor climates and also do more of our research and development into making greenhouses more efficient,” he said.
“So we are going to still be reliant on California, but we could take some of that reliance off by really developing our own indoor farming sector.”
But greenhouses can come with challenges. Somogyi points out indoor farming can be costly, with complex technology used to automate growing. A recent study also warned that a greenhouse being low-carbon depends on where it’s located — and if it’s close to renewable forms of energy to supply the electricity it needs.
Climate disruptions are here too
Uncertain weather and growing seasons are impacting Canadian growers as well, who are both at the forefront of adapting to climate change and suffering from its effects.
“We are now experiencing a severe thunderstorm warning here in Ottawa with the possibility of tornadoes, which is something that is pretty much unheard of,” Krijgsman pointed out.
“We had a tornado come through about four years ago. You can see that the weather patterns are changing.”
The short growing season means Krijgsman is also vulnerable to sudden changes in weather that can jeopardize his entire crop. Last year, for instance, he says he was harvesting his crop around Thanksgiving in October. The year before, he had to rush to his field in mid-September because of an unexpected frost warning.
All this makes investing in other forms of agriculture, like greenhouses, more important.
“The good thing about greenhouses and other forms of indoor farming is that they typically take the climate out of the equation, which means that the supply of what they produce is a lot more stable,” Somogyi said.
With files from Alice Hopton