TIME Smart Spending

Your Grilling Season Budget Just Went Up in Smoke

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Mike Lang—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It’s finally the time of year to break out the barbecue and cook outdoors. Now if only you could afford some steaks to toss on the grill.

This shouldn’t be coming as a surprise. Beef prices have been rising sharply since the beginning of the year, and the increases have come as a result of factors in play long before then. Thanks to long periods of drought, shrinking cattle herds, soaring feed prices, and high demand among consumers, analysts have been saying that beef prices will remain high for years to come.

So this week’s Associated Press headline indicating that beef prices in the U.S. have hit their highest levels in nearly three decades shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. Just how high are prices? USDA choice-grade beef reached $5.28 a pound in February, up from $4.19 a year prior and $3.97 in 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Retail beef prices usually decrease after the winter holidays, hand in hand with a fall-off in demand after the period of New Year’s parties and Christmas gatherings is over. But that never really happened in early 2014. A Department of Agriculture reported released earlier this year indicated that average beef prices were up to $5.04 per pound, a record high that was quickly surpassed when the next Department of Agriculture study was published.

What’s a hungry home griller to do? Well, there’s always Meatless Monday. Long before the dramatic rise in beef prices, the concept of scaling back on meat consumption has been pushed as a way to improve one’s health and finances. Data cited by Bloomberg News indicates that Americans are eating less red meat than they have in the recent past. The USDA forecasts that Americans will eat an average of 101.7 pounds of red meat this year, compared to 104.4 pounds in 2013.

Even so, due to the exceptionally small number of cattle in the U.S., as well as growing demand for beef overseas, the supply-demand ratio has pushed prices higher—and likely, higher still down the road. Understandably enough, beef prices generally rise during “grilling season,” which peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Penny-pinching experts always roll out essentially the same handful of tips for coping with higher meat prices. You can make do with cheaper cuts, for instance, or eat more pork, poultry, or yes, even vegetables. Buying in bulk—at a warehouse club like Costco, or perhaps via a service like Zaycon Foods, which sells meat wholesale in church parking lots and other prearranged locations—is a classic bit of advice.

In fact, not that this will do us much good now, but back in January, observers who were taking note of the trajectory of wholesale prices were advising people to stock up on beef and freeze what meat couldn’t be used in the short-term. Prices were high then, but forecasts indicated that they’d be higher later on. And now we know, the forecasts were correct.

TIME Agriculture

Climate Change Could Cause the Next Great Famine

Climate change impacts crop yields
A warmer climate could reduce the yield of staple crops like maize Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

A new study finds that as the planet warms, yields for important staple crops like wheat could decline sharply.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, which means the 100 million or so people of Irish descent around the world get the opportunity to celebrate their heritage with song, food and increasingly controversial parades. The sheer size of the Irish diaspora is what has made St. Patrick’s Day an international event—after all, there are only 6.4 million Irish people in Ireland. But it’s also a reflection of the waves of emigration that marked Ireland’s history until recently—emigration that was fueled in part by the great famine of the 1840s. Triggered by a disease that wiped out the potato, Ireland’s staple crop, the Great Famine—an Gorta Mor in Irish—led to the death of a million people and caused another million to flee the country. Without the potato blight, that Irish diaspora—and your local St. Patrick’s Day festivities—might be significantly smaller.

The Great Famine is a reminder of the way failures in agriculture can drive lasting historical change—while leading to immense human suffering. That’s a useful backdrop of a new analysis on the impact global warming will have on crop yields, just published in Nature Climate Change. The news isn’t good: the research, based on a new set of data created by the combination of 1,700 previously published studies, found that global warming of only 2º C (3.6º F) will likely reduce yields of staple crops like rice and maize as early as the 2030s. And as the globe keeps warming, crop yields will keep shriveling unless drastic steps are taken to adapt to a changing climate. As Andy Challinor, a professor of climate impacts at the University of Leeds and the lead author of the study, put it in a statement:

Our research shows that crop yields will be negatively affected by climate change much earlier than expected…Furthermore, the impact of climate change on crops will vary both from year-to-year and from place-to-place—with the variability becoming greater as the weather becomes increasingly erratic.

The effect that warming will have on crop yields is one of the most vital areas of climate research—and one of the most vexing. Warming will have different impacts on different kinds of crops in different parts of the world. Warmer temperatures—and the higher levels of carbon dioxide that come with them—may enhance yields in the short-term, but as the climate gets hotter and hotter, crops could wilt, especially in the tropics. Changes in precipitation—both prolonged droughts and bigger storms—will hit farmers hard as well. And with a 842 million hungry people around the world—and another 2 billion or so who will need to be fed by mid-century as global population grows—accurately nailing down the impact climate change will have on crop yields could make the difference between life and death for vast numbers of people.

The last assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2007 found that temperate regions like Europe would be able to deal with moderate, 2º C warming without much of an impact on crop yields. But the newer research used in the Nature Climate Change study indicates that that conclusion might have been too optimistic, especially as the climate gets warmer and warmer towards the century’s end. Farmers in the tropics will have it particularly difficult—yields from maize could drop by 20% or more if temperatures increase by more than 3º C (5.4º F). And those reductions in yield could hide much bigger year-to-year swings, if the weather gets more extreme. “Climate change means a less predictable harvest, with different countries winning and losing in different years,” said Challinor. “The overall picture remains negative.”

We should have a better sense of where climate research stands on crop impacts later this month, when the IPCC comes out with the next chapter in its newest climate science assessment. And farmers—especially in developed nations—can and likely will adapt to what global warming will throw at them, whether by changing crop planting schedules, shifting to more efficient irrigation or taking advantage of biotechnology. But there’s no guarantee that poor farmers—who already produce less per acre—will be able to keep up. The Great Famine was triggered by the potato blight, but it was intensified by cruel policy on the part of Ireland’s British masters, who ensured that rich stores of grain and livestock were exported out of the country even as Irish citizens starved to death in the streets. As a warming climate makes the difficult task of keeping the world fed even tougher, we can only hope that wiser policy prevents the next famine.

TIME Food

Europe’s War on American Cheese

Feta cheese is seen on display in a delicatessen store in Sa
Graham Barclay—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The E.U. has Wisconsin feta in its crosshairs

Blessed are the geographically accurate cheese makers. In an attempt to defend and expand its piece of the growing global cheese market, the European Union wants the United States to ban the use of certain cheese names that have become ubiquitous for consumers.

The proposal, part of ongoing E.U./U.S. trade talks, would ban American cheese makers from using terms like parmesan, asiago, feta, gruyere, gorgonzola, fontina, romano and others that refer to European regions from which those cheeses originate. Domestic cheese producers would be forced to drop those names and rebrand their products, potentially ceding a major edge to their European competitors in booming international markets like Asia.

“It’s a clever trade barrier,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. “There would be a lot of uphill work to do for cheese makers to convince consumers that their ‘salty white cheese in brine’ is feta. They would have to market it all over again.”

The widespread usage of European names has been an issue since the mid-1990s, when the E.U. released its geographical indication registry, which sought to restrict some category names to the regions most associated with them, like Scotland and Scotch whisky or France’s Champagne region for the eponymous sparkling wine. In 2012 the E.U. further shored up its exclusive claim to certain foods when it signed a free trade agreement with South Korea that blocked feta cheese made outside of Greece and asiago, fontina and gorgonzola made outside of Italy from being sold in South Korea.

“That was certainly a big wake-up call for us,” says Shawna Morris, senior director for the Consortium for Common Food Names, a Washington lobbying group formed by U.S. milk producers and dairy exporters to fight the E.U. proposals. Morris says her group is focused on what she believes is E.U. overreach against U.S. suppliers and products they’ve been making for decades. “We simply think it’s ridiculous to decide after so many years that they can no longer use these names.”

The stakes aren’t paltry. Last year, the U.S. cheese industry brought in $22 billion and produced 11 billion pounds of cheese, according to the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. ($10 billion of that is in Wisconsin alone.) Barring U.S. cheese makers from exporting feta or parmesan would give Greece and Italy an opportunity to step in. Marin Bozic, an assistant professor of dairy foods marketing economics at the University of Minnesota, says a deal would not only give Europe a non-price advantage in foreign markets, where American cheese exports are booming, but would affect domestic consumers, too.

“People will be confused,” Bozic says. “But the problem is that those names don’t indicate origin. They indicate method of preparation. When you order Greek feta, you don’t expect that it’s feta from Greece. You just expect feta.”

Consumers have come to understand these names as representative of a type of cheese rather than rooted in a certain place, Bozic argues. “It’s not adding anything for consumers. There’s nothing about Greek feta that would make it taste superior. It’s a common food name and reverting back 50 years is no solution. It’s going to be a hard fight, but I don’t see the U.S. relenting on this topic. I think the E.U. would have to make real concessions in other fields to make it beneficial for the U.S.”

TIME

U.N. Warns Asia-Pacific To Grow More Food Or Risk Wars

Governments in Asia and the Pacific must increase food production by mid-century, or risk food shortages and chronic hunger, warns U.N.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned on Monday that governments in Asia and the Pacific must increase its food production significantly by mid-century, or risk food shortages and chronic hunger that could spur political unrest and civil wars.

The warning came as the organization launched a week long food security conference in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It said some countries in the region—which encompasses countries as diverse as Australia, China, India, New Zealand, and the Philippines—will need to increase their food production by up to 77 per cent to feed their populations by 2050. The world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by mid-century, reports Reuters.

While countries in the region have made progress on improving on under-nutrition, says the FAO, the region has more hungry people than in the rest of the regions of the world combined—more than 550 million.

“If we fail to meet our goal and a food shortage occurs, there will be a high risk of social and political unrest, civil wars and terrorism, and world security as a whole might be affected,” said Hiroyuki Konuma, the assistant director-general of FAO Asia-Pacific.

[Reuters]

TIME Food & Drink

Beef: It’s What’s No Longer Affordable for Dinner

Lean finely textured beef, is displayed at the Beef Products Inc.'s plant in South Sioux City, Neb.
Nati Harnik—Reuters

Long periods of drought in many parts of the United States have left ranches with their lowest cattle numbers since the 1950s, causing a dramatic increase in prices when combined with rising fuel costs and increased demand for beef in other parts of the world

To paraphrase a Paula Cole song, where have all the cows gone?

At the start of 2014, U.S. ranchers had 87.99 million head of cattle, the lowest total since 1951. Long periods of drought in California and Texas are largely being blamed for the declining herd figures, so it’s not like the numbers should come as much of a surprise. Neither should rising beef prices hitting consumers and restaurants (and restaurant customers, of course). Analysts have forecast that beef prices will increase this year and for years to come.

Other factors, including rising costs for fuel and feed and increased demand for beef in developing countries, have also helped push beef prices higher and higher. “Really, the story’s pretty simple, and it begins back in 2007, 2008,” Ricky Volpe, research economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in a Marketplace interview recently. “In both those years, we saw basically every macroeconomic factor that influences food prices start working in the same direction to start driving up food price inflation.”

Regardless of the fact that rising beef prices make sense and shouldn’t really come as a surprise, shoppers and restaurant owners are being smacked with sticker shock lately when attempting to round up brisket, steaks, chuck, ground beef, and pretty much every other part of the cow. In the most recent Department of Agriculture report, the average retail price of fresh beef was measured at $5.04 per pound, up more than 50¢ over a two-year span and the highest price ever recorded.

(MORE: Reality Check: There Is No Chicken Wing Shortage, and Prices Haven’t Really Soared Either)

What’s especially alarming to consumers is that beef prices have continued on their upward trajectory through the early part of the year, a period that is traditionally a lull in the market in between two peak-demand times, the winter holidays and summer barbecue season. “Beef really didn’t drop much since the holidays,” the owner of one Milwaukee meat market told the Journal Sentinel. “Even the (beef) dog bones, those have gone up quite a bit,” he said. “We used to give those away.”

Steakhouses and other restaurants that lean heavy on beef are being squeezed as well. “How much have prices gone up in a year?” John Sanford, owner of BBQ on the Brazos in Cresson, Texas, asked before answering his own question in the Dallas Morning News. “Try in a month — prime brisket had gone up 50 cents a pound since December. Beef prices are killing everybody, and I mean everybody, in the barbecue business.”

Analysts expect that it will be several years before America’s cattle herds increase substantially in size. Until then, we should get used to the idea that beef prices will keep soaring, perhaps at a rate of 7% or 8% per year.

(MORE: Oh God No: Bread, Beef, and Other Foods That Will Cost Way More in 2014)

Some think those estimates are on the low side. Sanford told the Morning News, ““I think beef prices will go up over 10 percent this year,” and that while he hasn’t raised menu prices yet, he will probably have to do so soon. Given the relentless of rising beef prices, he may even do what was once unthinkable: The restaurant might break with a longstanding tradition and finally (gasp!) put chicken on the menu.

TIME Food & Drink

Our Global Diet Is Becoming Increasingly Homogenized—and That’s Risky

Bananas are increasingly popular around the world, but they're vulnerable to a new disease Ronaldo Schemidt—AFP/Getty Images

A new study confirms that worldwide, we're increasingly eating foods from the same small number of staple crops, which makes the global food supply vulnerable to new diseases and pests

All it takes is a trip to the closest Whole Foods to discover how much more varied the offerings of an American grocery store have become in recent years. Organic asparagus from Mexico, papaya from Hawaii, dry scallops from Nantucket Bay—the foodstuffs available to American consumers have never been more diverse. And on a country by country basis, that diversity is growing around the world, as people take advantage of economic growth and urbanization to move away from basic staples like rice and beans, adding meat and dairy and processed foods, while liberalized trade rules have allowed the spread of global food brands. Whether you’re in New York or Nairobi or Nagoya, chances are you have access to a greater variety of food than your parents or your grandparents once did.

But even as the offerings in each individual country become more diverse, the global diet as a whole—what people actually buy and eat—is becoming more homogenized, and that’s a dangerous thing. Those are the conclusions of a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from around the world went through 50 years of data gathered by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to identify trends in the global menu. They found that human diets have grown increasingly similar—by a global average of around 36%—as a few staple crops like wheat and maize (corn) and soybeans come to play a bigger and bigger part of mealtime, displacing regional crops like cassava and sorghum.

“More people are consuming more calories, protein and fat, and they rely increasingly on a short list of major food crops, like wheat, maize and soybean, along with meat and dairy products, for most of their food,” said Colin Khoury, a scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the lead author of the paper, in a statement. “These foods are critical for combating world hunger, but relying on a global diet of such limited diversity obligates us to bolster the nutritional quality of the major crops, as consumption of other nutritious grains and vegetables declines.

(MORE: Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable)

The conclusion shouldn’t be surprising to any world traveler who has noticed that you can get Mexican in Malaysia, sushi in South Africa and McDonalds just about everywhere. On a country by country basis, that can mean more choice and variety—Americans would never have eaten sushi 100 years ago and Japanese weren’t chowing down on hamburgers. But on a global level is all evens out, as the diets of individual countries become more and more similar.

While cheaper wheat and soybeans—much of which is consumed in processed food or in meat by grain-fed animals—has introduced new foods to billions of poor people who used to be dependent on a very limited diet, there are obvious drawbacks. The Westernized diet that’s sweeping the world has contributed to the rise in global obesity, which has nearly doubled since 1980, and the resulting spread of metabolic diseases like diabetes. The carbon footprint of crops like maize and wheat, and especially meat and dairy, is often bigger than that of the foodstuffs they’re displacing, amplifying agriculture’s role in climate change. And just as the homogenization of global culture through Hollywood mega-blockbusters and the spread of English has led to the crowding out of regional identity and language, the homogenization of the global diet could result in the loss of unique crops and obscure delicacies.

But the bigger problem is that a global diet that overwhelmingly depends on just a few staple crops is extremely vulnerable to any new diseases, pests or climatic changes that could threaten those plants. Just look at the banana, which has become the world’s most valuable fruit, with exports that reached 16.5 million metric tons in 2012. Americans alone eat more bananas than apples and oranges put together. But a pair of diseases are ravaging existing banana crops. Black Sigatoka, a disease that blackens bananas and can cut yields in half, is showing resistance to the fungicide that has long been used to control it. Worse, Foc Tropical Race 4, a disease that attacks the ubiquitous Cavendish banana variety, is spreading through Asia and is now threatening Latin America, which produces 70% of the world’s $8.9 billion banana export crop.

The reason Cavendish bananas now make up 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world is because they could survive an earlier version of the plant disease called Race 1. Over the first half of the 20th century, that pathogen drove what had been the world’s only export banana—the Gros Michel—to virtual extinction. (The losses caused by Race 1 were so great that they inspired the 1922 song “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which as Homer Simpson once noted, is just so sad.) As Gwynn Guilford writes in Quartz, the damage to the global banana industry could be even worse if “banana HIV,” as some have called Race 4, spreads globally:

And at $8.9 billion, bananas grown for export are only a fraction of the $44.1 billion in annual banana and plantain production—in fact, bananas are the fourth-most valuable global crop after rice, wheat, and milk. Where are the rest of those bananas sold? Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories. And that’s the really scary part. Since the first Panama disease outbreak, bananas have evolved from snacks into vital sustenance. And this time there’s no back-up banana variety to feed the world with instead.

That’s true for too many of the increasingly narrow number of crops that the world depends on today. A homogenized global diet isn’t just unhealthy and boring; like a stock portfolio with just a few holdings, it’s very, very vulnerable to any kind of disaster.

(MORE: Vital Farms: Raising the Ultra-Organic Egg)

TIME Agriculture

California Farmers Are Using ‘Water Witches’ to Make Your Two Buck Chuck

Proprietor Marc Mondavi demonstrates dowsing with "diving rods" to locate water at the Charles Krug winery in St. Helena, Calif. Eric Risberg—AP

Desperate times call for desperate measures?

In the middle of a record drought, some California farmers have hired dowsers — also known as “water witches” — to use uncommon techniques to find underground water, The Associated Press reports.

Dowsers extend copper or wooden sticks called “divining rods” over the ground to find new wells. Bronco Wine Co., the fourth largest winemaker in the U.S. (and the maker of Two Buck Chuck), employs dowsers on its 40,000-acre property, according to the AP.

The AP reports Napa Valley’s best-known “water witch” is winemaker Marc Mondavi, who charges as much as $500 per visit.

The state’s Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey do not endorse the practice, arguing that there is no scientific basis to it.

MORE: California Set to Get Rain, But It Won’t Quench The Drought

MORE: California Farmers Need Water: Is Desalination The Answer?

TIME Food & Drink

How Uncle Sam Is Helping to Feed the Honeybees

Getty Images

A new program at the USDA will pay farmers and ranchers to plant bee-friendly crops. It's about time

When I wrote a cover story last August about the plight of the honeybees, I didn’t think I’d still be talking about it half a year later. Yet this afternoon I went down to Washington to address a meeting of the National Garden Club—and the topic, of course, was honeybees. I wish I’d had better news to offer. Scientists still don’t know exactly why rates of honeybee loss have been so high in recent years, though there has been some promising research identifying new viruses. Beekeepers are still under tremendous economic pressure to keep their hives going in the face of colony collapse disorder (CCD). And the country, as I wrote last year, is still inhospitable to honeybees, lacking the wild spaces and flowers that feed them.

But on that last bit, at least, there’s some good news. This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $3 million program to provide assistance to farmers and ranchers in the Midwest interested in helping out honeybees by planting bee-friendly forage in and around their plots. That includes reseeding pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants that are good for bees—and for livestock as well. Ranchers will also be able to draw on the money to build fences and make other changes that allow them to move their livestock from pasture to pasture, to prevent the vegetation from getting worn down. The idea is to turn the farms back into a buffet for honeybees.

The states covered will be Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and both North and South Dakota, chosen because 65% of the country’s estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers store their hives there for at least part of the year. (Commercial beekeepers are an itinerant lot, moving their colonies from state to state as they chase pollination contracts.) Commodity crop farmers will be able to use the money to plant bee forage along the borders of their fields—vital, given that the spread of monocultures and soybeans offer very little nutrition for bees on their own. Such higher quality food will help honeybees battle the toxic mix of pesticides and parasites that have been wearing down their populations, as the USDA’s David Epstein told the AP:

You can think of it in terms of yourself. If you are studying for exams in college, and you’re not eating properly and you’re existing on coffee, then you make yourself more susceptible to disease and you get sick.

A $3 million outlay by itself won’t be enough to stop the onslaught of colony collapse disorder. But like the growth in rooftop and backyard beekeeping—even in crowded cities like Los Angeles and New York—it will help.

(MORE: Can Urban Beekeeping Stop the Beepocalypse?)

TIME Water

California’s Farmers Need Water. Is Desalination the Answer?

California drought farms
California's farms have been hard hit by the drought Ken James—Bloomberg/Getty Images

As Obama visits drought-stricken California, new ways to create fresh water are getting a second look

President Obama will get to see California’s disastrous drought first hand today on a visit to the farming city of Fresno. It won’t be a pretty sight. While the conditions are arid across the state, with 91.6% of California in severe to exceptional drought, agricultural areas are suffering the worst.

The state’s Central Valley has long been the fruit and vegetable basket of the country, growing nearly half of U.S. produce. But farms in the valley exist only thanks to irrigation—the Central Valley alone takes up one-sixth of the irrigated land in the nation. And thanks to the drought, there’s been little rain, and irrigation has been virtually cut off. California officials have already said that they won’t be able to offer any water to farmers through the state’s canals, and the expectation is that federal reservoirs won’t be of any help either, leaving farmers to their own dwindling supplies of groundwater. The California Farm Water Coalition estimates that the drought could translate to a loss of $11 billion in annual state revenue from agriculture.

Obama will try to offer some help in his visit to Fresno, announcing that the federal government will make available up to $100 million in aid for California farmers who’ve lost livestock to the drought, as well as $15 million in aid to help farmers and ranchers implement water conservation policies. But while efficiency and conservation can go a long way to stretching dwindling supplies of water, the reality is that California is an arid state that consumes water—80% of which goes to agriculture—as if it were a wetland. If it wants to continue as the nation’s number one farming state—producing a record $44.7 billion in agriculture receipts last year—it’s going to need more water. And if scientists are right that the current drought is the worst California has faced in 500 years, and that the state could be on the brink of a prolonged dry period accentuated by climate change, that water is going to have to come from new sources.

(MORE: Hundred Years of Dry: How California’s Drought Could Get Much, Much Worse)

As it happens, California sits next to the biggest source of water in the world: the Pacific Ocean. The problem, of course, is that seawater is far too salty to drink or use for irrigation. Desalination plants can get around that, using large amounts of electricity to force seawater through a membrane filter, which removes the salt and other impurities, producing fresh water. There are already half a dozen desalination plants in California, and around 300 in the U.S., but the technology has been held back by cost and by environmental concerns. A $1 billion desalination plant capable of producing 50 million gallons of water a day is being built in the California town of Carlsbad, but San Diego will be buying water from the facility for about $2,000 per acre-foot, twice as much as the city generally pays for imported water, while producing enough water for 112,000 households. Desalination can have a major carbon footprint—the Carlsbad plant will use about 5,000 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce an acre-foot of water. And because desalination plants in general needs about 2 gallons of seawater to produce a gallon of fresh water, there’s a lot of highly salty brine left over, which has to be disposed of in the ocean, where it can pose a threat to marine life.

Still, while efficiency and conservation will always be lower cost and lower impacts solutions to any water crisis, it’s hard not to see desalination playing a bigger and bigger role in California’s efforts to deal with lingering drought. The process of desalination is improving—the Carlsbad plant uses reverse osmosis technology, which is more energy efficient and environmentally friendly than older methods —and it has the advantage of being completely drought-proof. In a world where water is more valuable and more valued, desalination can begin to make more sense.

“Desalination needs to be judged fairly against the other alternatives,” says Avshalom Felber, the CEO of IDE Technologies, an Israeli company that is helping to construct the Carlsbad plant.

(MORE: Can GM Crops Bust the Drought?)

If desalination could be powered by renewable energy, some of those environmental concerns would melt away. And that’s what a startup called WaterFX is trying to do in the parched Central Valley. While farmers in the valley generally depend on irrigated water brought in from hundreds of miles away, the land itself isn’t short of groundwater. But most of that water is far too salty for use in farming. WaterFX’s technology uses a solar thermal trough—curved mirrors that concentrate the power of the sun—to evaporate salty water. The condensate that’s later collected and cooled becomes freshwater, leaving salt and other impurities behind. “Solar stills are an old technology, but this has a new twist that makes it very efficient and very cost effective,” says Aaron Mandell, the CEO of WaterFX.

Because it uses solar power, WaterFX’s desalination has virtually no carbon footprint, and the company says that it has a 93% recovery rate, much higher than conventional desalination. But its biggest advantage might be its modularity—Water FX’s solar stills can be set up locally, allowing farms to recycle their own runoff, rather than having freshwater pumped in from afar. That saves energy and money. “You can create a closed loop where the water is reused over and over again,” says Mandell.

Right now the company is working on a pilot with the Panoche Water District in the Central Valley, producing almost 500 gallons of clean water a day. WaterFX has plans to expand to a commercial plant with a 2 million gallon capacity. Of course, the technology would have to be scaled up massively to even make a dent in California’s irrigation needs, given that the state sends billions and billions of gallons of water to farms each year. But if California really is on the edge of a great dry, every drop will help.

(MORE: Why the Drought Won’t Be Getting Better Anytime Soon — and Why This One Won’t Be the Last)

TIME climate change

Is Drought Becoming the New Normal for Australia?

A dead tree stands in front of shallow water and a dried-up area of Lake George, located 50 km (31 miles) north of the Australian capital city of Canberra May 13, 2013
A dead tree stands in front of shallow water and a dried-up area of Lake George, located 50 km (31 miles) north of the Australian capital city of Canberra May 13, 2013 David Gray—Reuters

With farmers and Outback towns fighting desperately to survive, Australia is reeling from a long-term lack of water

The lucky country hasn’t had much luck with its weather of late. Following the warmest winter on record, a summer heatwave where temperatures topped 49.6°C and a volley of wildfires that destroyed hundreds of properties and homes, vast swaths of Australia are now being devastated by drought. The situation is especially dire in Queensland’s interior, where the driest year on record has prompting a few towns to plan for all-out evacuations.

“I have lived here for 50 years, and I can never recall anything as serious as what we’re going through now,” say Tony McGrady, Mayor of Mount Isa, a mining town of 24,000 people. “If we don’t get a good dump of rain by the end of the monsoon season in March, we’ll be in a serious pickle.”

Australia’s highly populated southeast and southwest corners are also feeling the pinch. Residents there have only just recovered from the longest dry spell on record — the Millennium Drought of 1995-2012, which changed the way Australia managed its water resources, prompting massive spending on desalination plants, grey-water recycling and rebates for home owners who installed water tanks. The rapid return of drought conditions in the south, and the failure of the life-giving rains of the tropical monsoon in the north, have led many to wonder whether drought is the new norm.

“It’s too early to say if another Millennium Drought is on the way because rainfall is much more difficult to predict than heat,” says Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, a non-government provider of climate change facts. “Yet over the past 30 years there have been clear long-term drying trends in the southeast of Australia and in the southwest where rainfall has declined 15 percent.

“But what’s happening in Queensland is different,” she adds. “We don’t really understand it, but are keeping our fingers crossed that it won’t have such huge implications as the Millennium Drought did for Australians.”

The drought in Queensland, a key beef-producing and agricultural region, may have dire implications for food security, however. Dry conditions that saw the culling of 8.6 million of Australia’s 27 million head of cattle last year have driven beef future prices to long-term highs, with patties now trading at a record $4 per kilogram.

Then there’s the human toll. In the past year, 16 graziers and farmers have taken their lives in Queensland as a result of drought-induced financial and emotional distress. They include a man who, after being told his 400 cattle were too emaciated to go to market, shot his entire herd before turning the gun on himself.

“There is going to be no alternative other than mass closures of farms,” says Scott Armstrong, a cotton producer in the town of St George, 390km west of Brisbane. “There’s been a chronic shortage of rainfall over not a great length of time but absolutely no relieving showers for 18 months. People are completely out of feed, and when you run out of feed you stop farming.”

A lengthy run on farm closures could have a far-reaching implications for Australia’s future prosperity. According to a report published by Deloitte in October, Australia is in a unique position to capitalize on the Asian middle-class’ growing appetite for protein. Agribusiness (along with gas, tourism, education and wealth management) stands to be become one of Australia’s top-five growth sectors, worth an additional $226 billion over the next 20 years, if things go well.

“What you always do battle with when it comes to drought policy is making the wider public aware of how problems in remote areas will affect the rest of the country,” Minister of Agriculture Barnaby Joyce tells TIME.

As deputy leader of the National Party, the minor partner of the center-right coalition that swept to power last September, Joyce is calling for $6.35 billion in drought assistance for farmers. In Mt Isa, Mayor McGrady is calling for an injection of state funds to build a third dam he says is essential for the survival of the town and hundreds of farms and cattle stations in surrounding areas.

“Talk of evacuation might grab a headline, but I don’t think it does the community good,” he says. “It’s time for a national summit between all levels of government on how to overcome water shortages so we we won’t have to face this problem again.”

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