Just a few months ago during the historic heatwave that gripped our state, I remember reading that officials at the Independent System Operator (ISO) that controls the power grid in California had “never foreseen” such massive electricity demand. “Historically”, coastal regions never experienced extreme heat at the same time as inland areas. The geographical extent of the heat, combined with the reduction in output from solar panels due to wildfire smoke, led to extensive rolling blackouts.
This week, with off-the-charts cold temperatures covering the entire state of Texas, I read very similar statements about electricity demand from utility officials there. My in-laws in Austin have been without power, off and on, for several days now with temperatures dropping as low as the single digits.
In the last few years, climate disasters somewhere on the globe have become practically a weekly experience. Frequent readers of this newsletter know that I have written several times about the various ways in which agriculture and the food supply are vulnerable.
Texas prides itself on being somewhat of it’s own state-nation, for better or for worse. It’s not connected to the power grid that supplies its neighbors — a fact that has now become the point of criticism. But it also produces a majority of its own food, from milk and meat to fresh produce. In case you’re not familiar with the geography or weather there, much of the state is further south than San Diego and generally warmer than most of California.
Agriculture in Texas is taking a massive hit from the extreme cold. Whether it be cattle producers in the middle of the state or vegetable and citrus growers near the Mexico border, they are simply not prepared.
It may be fair to criticize large utilities for not preparing their energy production facilities for previously unforeseen weather events. But most farmers do not have the resources to build infrastructure that may be used once in a lifetime.
Most non-farmers have heard the term “crop insurance”, and may imagine it works much the way the insurance on their house or car works. In fact, it is really just a hedge on low prices or yields that is used by well-financed farmers to even out their income. It covers only certain crops — generally those with the least sensitivity to the weather. And it is extremely expensive.
So what a long-duration period of sub-freezing temperatures and ice means for many Texas farms is a total loss of crops and income. The citrus industry in particular will see a multi-year loss due to trees and possibly entire orchards dying from the cold. Consumers across the country will see rising prices and shortages of citrus and other items.
There are only two other citrus-growing regions in the U.S. Florida has seen its citrus industry almost entirely decimated by an invasive pest and the disease it vectors (HLB). California has — so far — kept HLB to a minimum, but our citrus industry also faces the existential threat from drought. During our previous drought, thousands of acres of trees died.
Citrus is agriculture’s canary in the coal mine. No matter what crop a farmer grows, agriculture as a private industry as it currently exists can only exist in a world where weather is somewhat predictable and catastrophic disasters don’t occur every few years in a particular area.
I do not see any government leaders who appear to appreciate this fact, nor the scale of the change that must occur to safeguard our current food system against climate disasters. I imagine the first resulting widespread food shortages being accompanied by statements from government leaders of both parties echoing the sentiment of utility officials: “No one ever imagined this could happen”.
The task of developing a climate-resilient food system will take a significant portion of our global resources, and the expense will be immense. The time to start working on it was yesterday, but “no one” is even talking about it. Will the freeze in Texas finally push the issue into the spotlight? If not now, then when?