Sound The Alarm

Nathan Wild


Have you been following the story about the catastrophic flooding in California? You should be. Next time you’re at the grocery store take a look at where the vegetables, fruits and nuts come from. The vast majority of it is sourced from California. California is in fact Canada’s #1 agriculture and agri-food exporter with an astonishing 18% of our food coming from them. This means that the flooding in California isn’t just a California problem - it’s our problem too.

The Great Flood

Mother Jones published a story adapted from the 2020 book Perilous Bounty by Tom Philpott. In the book, Tom published private letters written by a young scientist by the name of William Brewer who lived in the 19 century. William was hired by the newly anointed state of California to create a “full and scientific description of the state’s rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same.”

During his four year investigation William chronicles what was known as the Great Flood of 1861–1862. This flood submerged Sacramento, the capital of California, and drowned the Central Valley in water as high as 15 feet. Today, that same Central Valley which occupies less than 1 percent of US farmland, produces a quarter of the nation’s food supply.

In the 1980s scientists began studying the streams and banks of the Central Valley to determine its historical weather patterns over the past centuries. They discovered that “The Great Flood of 1862 was no one-off black-swan event. Summarizing the science, Ingram and USGS researcher Michael Dettinger deliver the dire news: A flood comparable to—and sometimes much more intense than—the 1861–1862 catastrophe occurred sometime between 1235–1360, 1395–1410, 1555–1615, 1750–1770, and 1810–1820; that is, one mega flood every 100 to 200 years.”

If you do the math, the last mega flood happened a century and a half ago. Scientists are predicting that the next one will likely hit by 2060 and another one by the end of the century. They also say that because of rising global temperatures these once in one or two century mega floods will happen more frequently - about every 65 years.

Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t. Everyone thought the Abbotsford dam would never break, but just two years ago in 2021 an atmospheric river - the same extreme weather event that California is experiencing right now - broke the dam and flooded the entire Abbotsford Valley, killing hundreds of thousands of livestock and destroying homes and farms. The Abbotsford flood should be a wake up call to us all. Extreme weather events are becoming the norm. And our current globalized, centralized food system can no longer be trusted.

What Will Happen When We Lose California Agriculture?

When we lose California agriculture we will have to import our food from even farther away, such as Mexico, Argentina, Australia and South Africa. This will increase food prices due to higher transportation costs. And that’s if we can find alternatives. A quarter of the food produced in the US is grown in California's Central Valley. When it gets flooded it will create fierce competition among distributors and grocery stores.

We could source our food from across Canada but that would also be more expensive due to our high minimum wage. The other issue with transitioning to Canadian-grown food is that there won’t be enough farm workers to harvest it all. Most of our farms are large-scale operations and even now Canadian growers are struggling to find farmers to work their fields. Why? Because no Canadian in their right mind would want to work for one of these farms.

They offer back breaking, skilled and repetitive work in extreme weather conditions for minimum wage. And if you're on a conventional farm - which most of them are - you could be exposed to toxic pesticides and herbicides. This is why almost all large-scale farm workers are migrants. They’re the only ones desperate enough to take the work.

As grocery stores fight over food to stock their shelves there will be mass food shortages that could last for weeks and months. Food prices will skyrocket making a typical grocery bill unaffordable for many Canadians. We’ve made the mistake of putting our food security in the hands of multinational corporations. Instead of building a stable food system for all of us, they’ve created a precarious profit-making machine for themselves. The writing on the wall is clear. We need a better food system. One that isn’t tied to fossil fuel prices, with long supply chains vulnerable to natural disasters, and is controlled by us.

Our Only Hope

We only have one option to protect ourselves. We need to localize our food system. With a localized food system consisting of thousands of small-scale farmers working together, we can keep food prices stable. Local food systems have short and simple supply chains. It goes from farm to consumer or from farm to wholesaler to consumer. With less middlemen and less distance needed for transportation we can protect our food prices from price hikes. And by spreading out food production across the province in a decentralized manner we can reduce food shortages if a natural disaster were to strike a specific region.

Every small farm is also a small business. Having thousands of small farm businesses will improve local economies, making it easier to increase wages. When you work with a small crew on a small farm, growing food for your community out in nature, your job feels meaningful even though it can be challenging at times. I believe that if given the opportunity, we could fill small-scale farm positions with young people who aspire to do purposeful work pretty easily.

To have nearly a fifth of our food coming from a centralized location in a foreign country which is being plagued by wild fires, droughts and floods is idiotic and negligent. We're giving up our food security in exchange for cheap food. Is that a deal you feel comfortable making?

We have to start preparing our community for the worst-case scenario. The best way to do that is by supporting local farmers as much as you can. You could begin transitioning to a local and seasonal diet. If you’re a landowner with unused land you could consider leasing, donating or selling a small section of it to aspiring farmers who are looking for land. We were able to start our farm here in the Kootenays on half an acre of privately owned land that we leased through the Young Agrarians program. Without that opportunity we wouldn’t be where we are today.