Eating in a changing climate
To understand how climate change impacts the food on our plate, we first have to learn about our regional climate and weather, and how climate change and extreme events impact us on a local level. The good news is that you don’t need to be a climate scientist to do this. In fact, you likely already know a lot about our climate just by living in the region. San Diego County has a variety of microclimates determined by our unique topography that spans from the sea to the mountains, creating a complex palette of landscape types.
It’s this palette that makes it possible to experience sweet-smelling chaparral, grassy meadows, coastal intertidal zones, and oak woodlands, all in one day. It is also these unique microclimates that create an abundance of agricultural activities that are reflected in every meal. The climate in San Diego County is already a place of extremes and climate change will only exacerbate this. We experience hot, dry summers that put even the most drought-tolerant plants to the test. Mild winters exhibit the greatest year-to-year variation in rainfall of anywhere in the nation. We have warm, dry Santa Ana winds that drive extreme fire events. Amidst these extremes, the low clouds and fog along the coast provide respite for plants, animals, and people during the hottest parts of the summer.
Agriculture plays a prominent role in Southern California, holding significant economic, cultural, ecological, and historic value. In San Diego County, agricultural lands account for 242,554 acres and collectively boast $1.79 billion annually in economic value to the region. With over 5,000 farms, the county has more farms than any other in the nation and 70% are under 10 acres in size. The diversity of our microclimates is reflected in an impressive variety of specialty crops: Avocados, nursery, and floriculture crops have the highest production value not only in California, but also in the nation.
Farmers are experts at adapting to changing conditions, weather variability, and water availability. Climate change will exacerbate these existing challenges and create new ones. We can expect warmer nights in the summer and warmer winters overall as our minimum temperatures increase. The average hottest day of the year could reach 110°–125°F in desert areas and 100°–110°F in coastal areas by the end of the century. Intensified droughts, drier conditions, and water deficits across the entire region are likely—while our average wettest day is expected to increase by up to 30% every five years, reflecting the increasing intensity of precipitation and flooding events.
Local agriculture is critical to our food security and economy and also presents opportunities for advancing climate solutions. Across the region, farmers have been pushing forward bold and creative strategies that are not only good for the land, but good for the people who tend to it too.
At the helm of this regional movement are the Indigenous peoples—the Cahuilla, Cupeño, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay people—who have stewarded this land since time immemorial, and whose knowledges are critical to advancing climate solutions that keep food on our plates. All of the farms in San Diego County are on the ancestral homelands of the Indigenous first stewards, yet only 1.2% of farmers are Indigenous. Rather than reformatting Indigenous knowledges to fit into agricultural frameworks as we know them, a truly regenerative approach starts with uplifting Indigenous communities already leading the way to demonstrate stewardship strategies that protect people and the land while also addressing climate change.
We have an opportunity to embrace working with, supporting, and learning from the leadership, traditional knowledge, and connection to this place from Indigenous practitioners.
Our climate is controlled by a mixture of gases that act as a blanket surrounding the earth, protecting us from the cold expanse of space that lies beyond. When we burn fossil fuels, we release tiny, invisible gas molecules (greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere. As more of these greenhouse gases are released, they amass over time and create a layer that blankets the earth in heat-trapping gases. As more gases accumulate, more layers of blankets form over the planet and trap more heat, which further throws our ecological systems out of balance. While you might have heard how climate change will impact us on a global scale (e.g., melting icebergs), we can also expect changes right here in our own backyard.
So, what happens when our climate changes? Simply put, climate change feeds into extreme events and makes them more frequent and intense. We will experience hotter, drier summers that leave the ground cracked and thirsty, with winters that bring too little rain too late, or too much rain all at once. This process of extreme heat and precipitation events leads to drought and flooding, fuels fires, and impacts air quality. The plants and animals in our region have evolved to handle our local climate; however, the rate at which our climate is changing and becoming more extreme is unprecedented and species are not able to adapt quickly enough. Humans are also vulnerable, and even if we can buffer these impacts in the near term (air conditioners, please), not everyone has that luxury. Eventually, extreme events and the impacts of drought, fire, coastal flooding, and poor air quality will catch up to all of us.
When asked how climate change is impacting their crops and livelihood, the overwhelming response from farmers was that they are already seeing impacts across the board, including extreme weather events and variability, drought, temperature changes, precipitation variability, wildfire, and more.
“Farming here is hard. One extreme weather event can erase years of hard work ... We get every kind of extreme weather event—high winds, extreme heat, freezing, cold, and drought.”
“Temperatures reached 123°F, turning leaves into potato chips and wiping out our year’s work.”
“In the long term, the region may no longer be viable for some of our current crops, such as avocados and wine [grapes].”
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