By Brett Hundley

French fries are a staple comfort food in the U.S., but climate change could soon make fry lovers a bit uncomfortable. Most potatoes that are processed into French fries are grown in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), owing to the area’s attractive nutrient-rich volcanic soils. Idaho makes up 31 percent of total U.S. potato production, with the greater PNW region (Idaho, Washington, and Oregon) representing 61 percent of total output.

Potatoes are a short day / cool season crop, with yields dependent on a long growing season and consistent water allocation during hot summer months. Today, much of the PNW crop is irrigated, given the longstanding lack of appropriate rainfall in the region. In the years ahead, the PNW region faces rising temperatures, increased pest activity, heightened wildfire presence, and reduced groundwater and surface water supplies, among other threats. With climate change increasingly posing a threat to the PNW potato crop, and all French fry lovers, an effective climate adaptation plan will be needed.

Looming threats of water shortages, pests, and wildfires
As an Online Master of Natural Resources student in Dr. Paul Wagner’s Climate Adaptation course, I was tasked with developing a management plan for the PNW potato crop in the face of climate change. My research helped me realize that PNW potato farmers face quite a few challenges. 

First, over the next 15 years, regional precipitation is expected to increase by up to 15 percent during the spring, which could delay initial plantings. But in the hotter summertime months, when water application is required, rainfall is expected to decrease by 15–30 percent. To add to water shortage issues, groundwater supplies have been steadily declining in key PNW potato growing areas, and reduced snowpack levels could exacerbate commercial water shortages. All of this combines to increase the risk of new policies that put tighter water conservation rules on the farming community, limiting potato yields in the process. 

Map source: Climate Central
Map source: Climate Central

Temperatures are also expected to rise in the PNW in coming decades, which could lead to range expansion of new pests like leafhoppers, wireworms, and nematodes. Scientific literature suggests that future range expansion of potato crop pests in North America is likely, with a moderate increase in their establishment and damage potential. 

Finally, wildfire is likely to represent a sizable risk to the PNW potato crop in coming decades; the National Research Council (NRC) reports that for every degree Celsius (1.8°F) of forward temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the Western US could quadruple. Since the 1970s, the average number of fires over 1,000 acres each year has nearly quadrupled in Idaho, and has doubled in Oregon, according to Climate Central.

Climate adaptation solutions
Can potato farmers and potato processing companies adapt? Climate adaptation analysis suggests that there are likely four priority adaptation options available to the industry, accounting for variables like effectiveness, feasibility, and acceptance. 

Gene-editing offers the potential to address the largest number of risks, but this may take a considerable amount of time and capital. New irrigation technologies may prove to be a faster and cheaper option, but may only offset singular risks like drought. Farmers may also look to implement lower-cost options, like stone aggregate or ditch perimeters around their fields, as a means to controlling wildfire risk; however, this could prove ineffective.

In the end, the best potential adaptation option for PNW potato processors may be relocation to Michigan or Wisconsin, where potatoes are grown in smaller quantities today. Both states have access to large amounts of water, while also facing lower future risk from wildfire activity. The cost to build a new processing plant is meaningful, but companies must weigh this against the potential cost of a total future crop loss in the PNW. 

Above all, proper leadership is critical. The industry must act decisively today, allocating resources towards analysis, planning, implementation, and monitoring, in order to protect as many stakeholders as possible.

Brett Hundley headshot

Brett Hundley is a full-time Virginia Tech Online MNR student. Previously, he worked in equity research for 15 years, analyzing the food and agribusiness space.