For Nadia Harlow, the owner of Spice of Life, produce runs have become a bit of a shot in the dark. She is never sure she’ll find the right peppers she needs to make her hot sauce in Pefferlaw, Ont.
“I have faced challenges trying to get peppers. I’ve had to discontinue one of my popular sauces, just based on the fact that I just cannot find the peppers for that,” Harlow said.
With Canada facing a record-breaking wildfire season and many parts of the country flooded, both Europe and North America facing heat waves and July 2023 set to become the hottest month on record for planet Earth, the impact of extreme weather events on food supply has come into focus once again.
Harlow is among the many hot sauce manufacturers who felt the pinch after a drought in Mexico and depleting levels in the Colorado River led to a dwindling supply of hot peppers being exported to both the United States and Canada.
In April 2022, California-based Huy Fong Foods, which produces the popular Sriracha hot sauce, put out a statement warning consumers of shortages.
But it’s not just your favourite hot sauce under threat.
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Brent Preston, president of Farmers for Climate Solutions, said it’s about to get a whole lot worse than just fewer Sriracha bottles on the shelves.
“That’s kind of the tip of the iceberg. And I think that the extreme weather events we’re seeing in Canada and around the world, we’re going to have very severe consequences to our food supply chain,” said Preston.
“We import a lot of food in Canada and we’re also vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.”
Preston, who grows vegetables on his Ontario farm, said he expects fruit and vegetable supply to be very vulnerable.
“The vast majority of our fresh fruits and vegetables are imported. Most of those come from Mexico and the United States; a big portion of them come from the Central Valley of California. And the Central Valley is experiencing extreme weather right now. They’re relying on groundwater, which is being depleted.”
According to a 2022 report, two-thirds of the world’s calories come from four staple foods: wheat, rice, maize and soybeans. At least 72 per cent of these crops are grown in just five countries: China, the United States, India, Brazil and Argentina. A climate catastrophe in any one or more of these countries could send the entire world into a food crisis, the report said.
“Climate change increases the likelihood of global ‘synchronized’ production shocks – multiple major staple food producing and exporting countries facing simultaneous crop shortfalls simultaneously,” the report said.
The report said wheat – 65 per cent of which is produced in water-scarce environments – will be the most vulnerable of all the major staples.
Climate change is already having an impact on food supplies, particularly in Canada.
“In Western Canada, multiple climate disasters – including extreme heat, drought and forest fires, followed swiftly by unprecedented rainfall, landslides and flooding – wreaked havoc on food production in 2021: wheat production plummeted by 35 per cent and canola by 14 per cent, 1.3 million farm animals died, and 80 per cent of commercial shellfish stocks were wiped out in a massive die-off,” the report said.
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India’s recent decision to stop all exports of non-Basmati white rice has raised questions about food insecurity, since India accounts for more than 40 per cent of the world’s rice exports. India’s move came days after Russia withdrew from the Black Sea grain deal, under which it allowed the passage of ships from Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea carrying food grain shipments.
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Preston said while Canada is not invulnerable to extreme climate events, it can work on reducing its reliance on imported food to guard against external shocks.
“I live outside the town of Collingwood, Ont. For many years, Collingwood had a huge canning factory, where local fruits and vegetables that were grown in the neighbourhood were preserved and people ate that in the winter. And that’s all gone now. There’s virtually no canning or preserving industry left in Canada. But there’s no reason we couldn’t bring that back. That’s absolutely possible.”
Drew Jacobson, owner and operator of Ontario-based Hurt Berry Farms Inc., was saved from the worst effects of the Mexican drought because he grows his own peppers.
“A lot of makers now are just saying, ‘Well, why are we spending the extra money when we can just do it ourselves?’ We have a lot of new Ontario and Canadian pepper farms showing up on the scene,” said Jacobson.
Spice of Life owner Harlow said she hopes this movement will lead to a stronger local supply.
“I’ve noticed in the last five to seven years, a lot of the farmers are switching to greenhouse-grown produce. And the peppers are absolutely beautiful.”
Preston said many Canadian farmers are eager to adopt more sustainable means of production, but they need government support. Improving soil health to make it more resilient to extreme rainfall, and increasing bio-diversity on farms, he said, will go a long way in adapting to a warming planet.
“We can grow multiple crops in the same field at the same time, there’s lots of different innovative practices that farmers can introduce to make their farms more resilient,” he said.
Preston’s views are consistent with a 2021 report that called on the Canadian government to have an “increased focus to adapt crops and plants to become more resilient to more extreme weather.”
The report from the Food Systems Summit, convened by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, also called on the Canadian government to engage “with Canada’s Indigenous and remote communities to help address food security and production issues.”
The climate events in July, which is the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, paints a bleak picture. But Preston said we should be bracing for worse.
“I just hope it’s a wake-up call. We need all hands on deck to tackle this problem, to reduce emissions as quickly as we can and to look at what we can do to make ourselves more resilient for what we know is going to come.”
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