Libby’s, which is a subsidiary of Nestle and supplies about 85 percent of all canned pumpkin consumed in the U.S., experienced a serious blow to its pumpkin harvest this year, thanks to poor growing conditions in the spring. Pumpkins grow best in warm, sunny weather. Most of the pumpkins that go on to be canned for consumers are grown in the Midwest, where such conditions are usually prime through the spring and summer. Libby’s pumpkins, for instance, are grown in Morton, Ill.
But according to Paul Bakus, president of Nestle Corporate Affairs, the pumpkin harvest fell about 50 percent short this year after record-setting rains fell during the growing season and “really negatively impacted the growth of the plants and the fruit.”
“Initially, when we went out in the field in August to start harvesting, we thought maybe the crop would be down about 25 to 30 percent,” Bakus said. “Once we looked at it even closer, it was clear that we were only going to get 50 percent of what we thought we would get.”
Typically, the harvest season runs from August through the end of October, and sometimes into November, Bakus said. But this year, the company had to conclude the harvest a month early. The last case was shipped in October — meaning there will be no more pumpkins harvested and packed until next August. And while he said he’s confident most consumers will be able to get their supply of pumpkin for Thanksgiving, he noted that “it may be a little more challenging for Christmas.”
Since other pumpkin producers also grow in the Midwest, Bakus expects that Libby’s isn’t the only one experiencing a shortage, although it’s unclear how other companies have been affected. A representative from Seneca Foods, a canned pumpkin competitor, did not immediately respond to a message requesting a comment on the issue.
“We really do see this issue we’re experiencing with Libby’s as an example of what the risk is of climate change to our business,” Bakus said.
According to Jim Angel, Illinois’s state climatologist, the average precipitation in Morton from May through September is just over 19 inches. This year, the area received 29.43 inches — “a lot of extra rainfall there,” he said. (Angel has also written a blog post on this year’s pumpkin shortage).
But while this year may have been especially wet for Illinois, the extra rain wasn’t exactly a surprise, according to Angel. “The last couple of years, almost every spring has been on the wet side,” he said. “In fact, I think the last five years, four of them we had well above average rainfall in the spring, and the one year we didn’t was the 2012 drought.”
In general, there’s been a long-term trend of increasing precipitation in the Midwest, Angel said. “If you look at the data for the last century or so, in many areas of the state precipitation has increased by about 10 to 15 percent, and we’re seeing a lot more of the heavy rainfall events.”
The patterns observed so far are consistent with the consequences climatologists have predicted for the region as a result of global climate change, Angel said. While temperatures haven’t risen in the Midwest quite as dramatically as they have in other parts of the country or the world, he said, the spikes in precipitation can be attributed to warming, and related increases in moisture, in other regions.
“In Illinois and parts of the Midwest, a major source of moisture for any kind of precipitation comes out of the Gulf of Mexico,” Angel said.
And if we stay on our current track, it will likely only get worse from here — and not just for pumpkins, either. According to the National Climate Assessment, a federal report completed last year, average winter and spring precipitation in the Midwest will increase by 10 to 20 percent by the end of the century compared with the period between 1971 and 2000 if carbon emissions stay at current levels. Average summer and fall precipitation is expected to stay pretty constant.
The report notes, “Wetter springs may reduce crop yields and profits, especially if growers are forced to switch to late-planted, shorter-season varieties.”
Additionally, the report predicts that extreme precipitation events — think heavy storms — are likely to increase in intensity and severity across the board. These kinds of events also have the potential to affect agriculture by damaging crops or causing floods.
Numerous studies have warned that the effects of climate change, including changes in temperature and precipitation and more frequent and intense severe weather events, droughts, fires, floods and other natural disasters, could have major impacts on agriculture all over the world.
In recent years, a number of shortages have been attributed to climatic changes — Libby’s pumpkins are just the latest. Last year, for instance, a lime shortage in Mexico was attributed partly to heavier-than-average rainfall in certain parts of the country.
Such events should be a wake-up call to the agriculture and food industries, Bakus said. “What we’re experiencing is just an example of what’s to come, unless action is taken,” he said. “It’s really important to recognize that there is climate change, and it spans borders, it spans political lines.”
And it doesn’t have to be total doom-and-gloom for the future, added Angel, the Illinois climatologist. In less than a week, dozens of nations around the world will convene in Paris for the UN’s annual climate conference, where the goal this year will be to complete an international agreement to cut carbon emissions.
“If we get the Paris treaty signed and pull back on CO2 emissions, [the future] will be milder than if we go with business-as-usual,” Angel said. And Bakus noted that Nestle, at least, has already begun taking measures toward a better future, with plans to reduce water use, cut down on factory emissions and expand its use of renewable energy.
In the meantime, it may pay to stock up on canned pumpkin during your next trip to the grocery store — by the time Thanksgiving is over, it may be hard to get more until next fall. And that should be eye-opening.
“I really hope that the situation we have with pumpkin is another example of why focusing on climate change is so important to the future of food security,” Bakus said.