Aridamerica Food Resilience


Edible desert landscape of legume trees, prickly pear, columnar cactus, and agaves near Jalisco, Mexico

Bill Hatcher

Accelerating climate change and water scarcity have begun to disrupt, degrade, and restructure arable lands and food systems in the deserts of North America. Tucson and southern Arizona, however, are surrounded by diverse wild food plants adapted to arid environments. Through several interwoven efforts, the Desert Lab is working with campus, community, and Indigenous partners, as well as governments to establish resiliency in the face of dramatic disruptions, create jobs, and help urban communities adapt to accelerating climate change over the next half century.

The Desert Laboratory is partnering with university and community organizations to broaden public awareness of our regionally distinct, desert-adapted food plants. A recent grant from the Arizona Institutes for Resilience supported collaboration with  the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener Program and The Garden Kitchen, Mission Garden, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, and Borderlands Restoration Network to promote climate-smart, nutritious food plants well-suited to the Sonoran Desert climate. In the spring and summer of 2021, a limited run of educational workshops empowered Tucsonans to cultivate, harvest, and savor desert-adapted foods. 

Have you ever baked with mesquite flour? Ever tasted grilled prickly pear? These and many other local desert plants could grace your plate, boost food security and improve health outcomes in our community, all while taking less of a toll on the environment. Learn how you can help create a healthy, resilient, and climate-smart future by growing and eating desert-adapted foods.

To learn more about the project, please contact Erin Riordan.

Click here to download the Desert Foods booklet

Haga click aquí para descargar el folleto Alimentos del Desierto

Without radical changes to food production, desert dwellers face growing food and economic insecurity in a hotter, drier future. Megadroughts supercharged by anthropogenic warming are already testing the adequacy of conventional crops, as well as the health and livelihoods of desert dwellers and farm workers. Continued reliance on large-scale, industrialized agriculture is only exacerbating the problem. Unsustainable practices are stressing dwindling ground water reserves and degrading the very basis of food production. Furthermore, increased dependence on outside resources has left us vulnerable to disruptions in labor, supplies, fuel, and food production. 

The Desert Laboratory and the Arizona Institues for Resilience are leading a multi-year initiative, grounded in the biocultural heritage of Aridamerica, to radically redesign desert food production and help desert communities adapt to accelerating climate change over the next half century. The Aridamerica Food Resilience initiative focuses on creating inclusive and sustainable solutions for local and regional food systems that will promote resilience to compound social and environmental stressors. As major cities around the world consider a hotter, water-scarce future, today’s arid lands are our laboratories for future agriculture.


Map of Aridamerica, the arid lands of North America that form a distinct center for plant diversification and domestication.

Source: Nabhan et al., 2020.

Tucson and Southern Arizona are surrounded by a diversity of food plants adapted to arid environments that have long been utilized by multiple Traditional knowledge bases. Desert foods like agave, prickly pear, and mesquite can produce reliable yields with a fraction of the water used to grow conventional crops, even under stressful heat and drought conditions. These plants also provide a number of environmental and health benefits that will support resilient lands and communities. Recent innovations, like agrivolatics—where food crops are grown under the shade of solar panels—also show promise for climate-smart desert food production. Combining these elements into a new model of desert food production will provide a path forward that is not only sustainable in the face of climate change, but has the potential to create jobs, support ecosystem functions, and improve human health. 

Read more about this new paradigm here:

GP Nabhan and EC Riordan et al. (2020). An Aridamerican model for agriculture in a hotter, water scarce world.

Now is the time to revitalize public knowledge in our region’s climate-resilient foods and adapt for a hotter, drier future. The Desert Laboratory is investing in this future through the creation of a new garden space at the base of Tumamoc Hill. Together with, university, community, and government partners, The Desert Laboratory will work to create outreach programming centered on the arid land food system of tomorrow. The garden space will not only serve as a place for connection and refuge, but will tell a story of resilience and adaptation to inspire answers to the question “What will it look like to feed ourselves and thrive in a hotter, drier and future?” Themes will focus on food security, sustainability, and climate change adaptation. To learn more, click here.


Entrance to the proposed community outreach and garden space at the base of Tumamoc Hill.

Paul Mirocha/Desert Laboratory

Entrance to the proposed community outreach and garden space at the base of Tumamoc Hill. Credit: Paul Mirocha/Desert Laboratory.


The fiery native wild chile, chitepin, (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum) has long been enjoyed and celebrated in the regional cuisines of the Sonoran Desert.

Erin Riordan

Media Coverage


Nabhan, G.P. (2020) Crops from U.S. food supply chains will never look nor taste the same again. Agriculture and Human Values.

Nabhan, G.P., E.C. Riordan, et al. (2020) An Aridamerican model for agriculture in a hotter, water scarce world. Plants People Planet.

Barron-Gafford, G.A., M.A. Pavao-Zuckerman, et al. (2019) Agrivoltaics provide mutual benefits across the food-energy-water nexus in drylands. Nature Sustainability.

Khoury, C.K. & G.P. Nabhan. (2019) Conservation and use of crop wild relatives in Arizona. Tucson: University of Arizona Southwest Center.

Nabhan, G. P., J. Mabry, et al. (2019) Baja Arizona artisanal food products. Tucson: Tucson City of Gastronomy.

Riordan, E.C. & G.P. Nabhan (2019) Trans situ conservation of crop wild relatives. Crop Science.

Nabhan, G.P. & J. Mabry (2018) State of Tucson’s food system 2017–2018: Pioneering affordable access to food biodiversity in Tucson, Arizona, a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Tucson: University of Arizona Center for Regional Food Studies.

Bellante, L. & G.P. Nabhan (2016) Borders out of register: Edge effects in the U.S.–Mexico foodshed. Culture, Agriculture, Food, and Environment.

Mabry, J, M.A. Di Giovine, & T. Majweski (2016) Moveable feasts: Food as revitalizing cultural heritage. Heritage in Action.

Nabhan, G.P. (2016) Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Nabhan, G.P. & J. Glennon (2016) Prehistoric and early historic food crop diversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Center for Regional Food Studies.

Nabhan, G.P. & J. Glennon (2016) The changing faces in Arizona’s food system. Tucson: University of Arizona Center for Regional Food Studies.

Nabhan, G.P. (2013) Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land – Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

The Researchers


Martha Ames Burgess

Research Designated Campus Colleague and Adjunct Professor, Tohono O'odham Community College

Jonathan Mabry, PhD

Research Designated Campus Colleague, Southwest Center Archaeologist, Heritage Conservationist

Gary Paul Nabhan, OEF, PhD

W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Food and Water Security for the Borderlands

Erin Riordan, PhD

Research Designated Campus Colleague, Biosphere 2 Conservation Research Scientist, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum