Experts say climate change threatens America’s food supply. Can farmers in the Mississippi Delta save it?

If the Midwest is the breadbasket of America, then California is its produce section. Two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts and more than one-third of its vegetables are produced in the Golden State. But California’s abundance is threatened by wildfires, extreme weather and chronic drought — the effects of climate change.

 Over the next five years, companies such as Walmart and Kellogg face up to $120 billion globally in costs from environmental risks in their supply chains, according to a 2020 report. In that time, the food, beverage and agriculture sector could lose up to $17 billion in climate-related losses, assuming the most risk behind manufacturing. 

Companies would feel the pain, but so would shoppers. “Increased costs are expected to be passed up the chain in a domino effect to their buyers. In turn, these companies are likely to pass the cost onto consumers,” the report concludes.

Broadening America’s food chain with more produce from outside California, consultants say, could mean that when climate disaster strikes one region, it doesn’t disrupt the whole food supply. 

The World Wildlife Fund is working on a research and pilot program to do just that, known as the “Next California” project. 

The Mid-Mississippi Delta Region — eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, southeast Missouri and northwest Mississippi — has a rich farming tradition, mostly commodity row crops such as rice, soybeans, and corn. Growing produce would mean a shift to specialty crops. Some, like watermelon, berries and tomatoes, are already cultivated in the region, but production would need to grow to a commercial scale.

Scientists spent approximately two years testing whether 24 types of fruit and produce grown in California could be grown commercially in the Delta. Their conclusion: the region could handle the specialty crops, which included berries, kale, tomatoes and lettuce. That would make the U.S. food chain more resilient if, for example, wildfire destroyed lettuce crops in California — buyers could rely on lettuce from the Delta. The region’s central location would also mean fresher produce for consumers in nearby regions. 

The effort could benefit consumers and farmers, the fund’s Director of Innovation Start-Ups Julia Kurnik told CBS News. 

“By sourcing from the Delta as well as California — so not instead of, but in addition to — you now have a diversified supply chain,” she said. “It’s better for the environment from many angles around decreasing food loss and food waste and shorter transportation routes, but it is also about food security.” 

The project is not without its hurdles. Winters in the region are colder than California, making certain crops, such as almonds, dates and avocados, unviable, said Arkansas State University assistant professor of agriculture business and economics Aaron Shew.

The summers are more humid, bringing pests and leading farmers to pesticides and herbicides, making it more difficult to grow certified organic produce. 

And while water in the Delta is much more abundant than in California, it is not limitless. Shew said rain is most common in the off-production season and groundwater can sometimes run low when farmers need it the most. Specialty crops use less water than row crops, a selling point for the project.

Richard and Shelly Pfeifer say they’re interested in using less water on their 1,300-acre cattle ranch in Havana, Arkansas, where they grow their own hay. They used to harvest soybeans, but found the returns weren’t enough to keep the crops going. Today, they’ve got 60 acres set aside with which they could experiment but Shelly said it would be difficult to convert land that has been in grass production back to beans.

The Pfeifers said they’re open to the project, especially if it could invigorate their community, but Richard said folks in the community are particularly skeptical about labor ramifications. 

Fruits and vegetables are mostly hand-picked, making them very different from row crops which are largely harvested mechanically. This means the Delta lacks the trained laborers needed for a produce production boom. 

The Pfeifers said this is the biggest hurdle ahead. If they took the risk and started growing organic soybeans, they would not be able to use herbicides and would instead need to hire laborers to weed the crop. These are the kind of jobs, Shelly said, Americans aren’t willing to take. They would have to spend more on labor, potentially cutting into their revenue. 

The fund said that workers with H-2A visas — used to hire foreign seasonal workers when employers prove locals aren’t applying — could supplement labor needs. But the Pfeifers said an influx of migrant workers could attract criticism from locals.

Shew told CBS News the goal isn’t to take over or replicate the West Coast produce market, but to use the strengths of the Delta region in a new way. 

Existing infrastructure, like access to the Mississippi River — already a thoroughfare for national and international commerce — is a plus. But moving produce would also require the infrastructure to pack and freeze it first.

“If you produce a whole bunch of edamame, there’s only so much edamame that’s going to be bought and consumed here in Arkansas. So you have to be able to freeze it and ship it for a low enough cost that you’re still making a profit,” said Shew. 

Shew said that great success would mean produce shipped beyond the Delta — Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and beyond. He’s likewise hopeful buyers from grocery stores and restaurants will be anxious to buy locally sourced, American-grown goods. 

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