Ecocentric

How the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive

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Drought could reduce the U.S. corn harvest by 12%

They call drought the slow-motion disaster, and for good reason. While earthquakes and volcanoes strike in a moment, and hurricanes unfold over a few days, a drought is simply a day without rain that becomes two days without rain…and then a week…and then a month and then longer. The damage worsens by the hour, but it can take weeks or even months before the effects of drought become visible in cracked soil, stunted crops and dried up lakes. Even then, there’s none of the explosive drama that marks other natural disasters. Instead, there are days of sun and heat, a steady drying of the landscape, as if the all the water in the air and the soil were simply being sucked away.

(MORE: The Great California Fire)

So while the drought of 2012 may not have generated the iconic images of Hurricane Katrina or Haiti earthquake, remember that was is happening right now to the heartland of the U.S. truly is historic. The National Climatic Data Center reports that 55% of the country is now in moderate to extreme drought, making this the biggest dry spell since 1956, and it already rivals some years from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The only thing that’s kept this drought from potentially becoming worse than the 1930s is that it is still relatively young—a “flash drought,” in the words of Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman—a fact that only underlines how intense the dry weather has been.

It’s been bad enough to potentially ruin much of the Midwest’s corn and soybean crop, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reporting this week that only 31% of the corn crop can be rated as good or excellent, down 9 percentage points from last week. As one scientist told the New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert this week, trying to farm in the caked-dry soil of usually fertile states like Indiana or Illinois is like “farming in Hell.”

And that’s where the more than 99% of Americans who aren’t farmers will begin to feel the impact of this drought. Corn is already above $7 a bushel, and soybeans—another major staple crop used for animal feed and fuel—aren’t far behind. So you might expect the corn on the cob at the local supermarket might get a little pricier. But of course the effects go far beyond the simple cost of an ear. Corn is the base of the American food pyramid, used in everything from meat—corn is a staple grain for chickens and cattle—to cereal to even Gatorade and Ring Dings. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan concisely quotes a food researcher who notes that Americans “look like corn chips on legs.”

(MORE: Rising Temperatures and Drought Create Fears of a New Dust Bowl)

So if American corn gets more expensive—and unless the drought miraculously lifts, there’s every reason to expect it will—just about everything else on our table will as well, as Richard Volpe, an agricultural economist with the USDA, told CNN:

Corn is a major input for retail food. Corn is used to make feed for all the animals in our food supply chain. As this drought reduces the harvest of corn, that would drive up the price of feed for animals and then in turn meat products.

How big an impact more expensive corn will have on the family grocery bill isn’t clear. As Volpe goes on to note, it’s not a 1-to-1 relationship—a 50% increase in the price of field corn might raise the cost of food by 1%. That’s largely because for every $1 that an American spends on food, perhaps 14 to 15 cents of it actually goes to, well, food. Thanks to our highly artificial and subsidized diets, things like packaging, processing and advertising all take up more of the food dollar than simple field corn. Americans are insulated from the spikes in crop prices, both by marketing and by government subsidies. It also helps that even while corn prices are going up thanks to the drought, oil prices have fallen significantly over the past few months—sparing parched farmers greater expense and putting downward pressure on inflation.

The rest of the world, though, isn’t as lucky. In countries like Mexico or Kenya, where much of the population lives day by day and eats plain tortillas and bread, the cost of food really is the cost of food. So far we haven’t seen the kind of major food spikes that led to food riots in parts of the developing world in 2007 and 2008, but if a good chunk of the U.S. corn crop wilts in the field, the impact will likely be more severe overseas than it is in the U.S.—especially because America is far from the only country struggling with drought.

(MORE: The Daily Weather Really Is Getting Weirder)

As for farmers themselves, they’re already taking a hit—but the overall impact on the U.S. economy may turn out to be minor.  Farmers who depend on rain in much of the Midwest could face a ruined crop that would sink their season’s earnings. That in turn will impact the bottom line of companies like John Deere that sell to farmers. At the same time, however, agricultural incomes have been surprisingly high over the past couple of years, which should give many farmers a cushion. And those farmers fortune enough to live in areas that haven’t been crippled by the drought stand to benefit hugely from high crop prices. Overall, though, agriculture is a relatively small part of the overall national economy—just 1.2%—so while the drought won’t help the struggling economic recovery, it won’t sink it either.

But let’s be clear: if catastrophes like the drought of 2012 become more and more common, no economy will be immune. It’s too early to say for sure what role climate change may have played in this drought, and obviously the example of the Dust Bowl teaches us that extremely dry periods were hardly unknown in American history. But we do expect that as the climate continues to warm, extreme heat waves and prolonged dry spells are likely to become more intense in much of the world—including the western U.S. Already government scientists have said that climate change made the crippling Texas drought of 2011 some 20 times more likely. The drought of 2012 isn’t over yet—and it won’t be the last we’ll face.

MORE: Climate Change Plays a Role in Wildfires—But Not the Only One

17 comments
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Cathy Gager
Cathy Gager

Phooey!!!!!!!!!!!!

for yrs there was an OVERPRODUCTION of corn - - - we should have a surplus up the wingwang - - - but nooooo - had to ship it off to asia or make it into fabulous ethanol.  AGAIN - this a contrived situation.  YES - there is a drought - but if we kept our reserves and not send everything away to make the almighty buck - - - it would not matter!  http://blogs.palmbeachpost.com...

Robert Adico
Robert Adico

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Russ Finley
Russ Finley

I'm surprised that this article didn't mention the fact that mandated ethanol blending was already consuming about 40% of the corn crop.

I was also shocked to learn that agriculture only accounts for 1.2% of of gross national product. If mandated corn ethanol consumption was an attempt to redistribute wealth to the corn belt (increase corn prices to finance farmers)  to buy votes from early farm belt primaries, the plan is about to backfire.

Paul Rice
Paul Rice

RF... by your 'title'  it seems you should be more knowledgeable than what you present on your blog, ethanol does NOT consume 40% of the corn crop.  It goes into the plant at 7% crude protein and nearly 70% of the product comes out of the plant as distillers grains at about 20% protein, a much higher quality feed by-product.  Excellent feed product that goes on to feed the livestock industry.    No need to report the whole story Russ especially when you have an agenda of your own to represent. 

krin
krin

If only we could get farmers in these drought areas to start practicing hugelkultur techniques.. with hugelkultur you really only need an inch or two of rain for a whole year, the "soil" in hugelkultur will store the water.  Or if they learned how to do permaculture practices.. There is a great utube video of a small scale "greening the dessert with permaculture".  Or heck, if instead of large scale monoculture farms, if overall farming practices starting becoming more localized food forests both in the countryside and in the city, then the soil would be kept in tact AND food prices could go down.  HOW we grow the food needs to change!  

superlogi
superlogi

You really don't know know much about farming,  do you?  First of all, organic farming in general is a formula for mass starvation and the only place on earth with 2 inches of moisture are classified as deserts.  Very, very sandy and dry deserts where almost nothing grows.  In fact most true deserts get quite a bit more moisture than that.  And the reason farmers don't practice it, is because they would starve to death if they did.  There's nothing wrong with reduced tillage practices and utilizing stover and other organic plant and animal matter in growing plants, but you can't feed a world with hugelkultur.

Partha Deb
Partha Deb

Is it enough for US president to address climate change issues at now ?

AmericanMillennium
AmericanMillennium

 Well climate is something that takes decades of weather patterns to create a "climate model".

What we are experiencing with drought is something called a regional weather anomaly or "pattern".

Bills are what starts a process that moves the ball forward on issues.  This is generally started by the House of representatives although there are Senate Bills as well.

In any case the President does not have the power to get a "climate" bill passed.

Conservatives currently control the House.  Putting extra environmental restrictions is the last thing conservatives are going to do especially during the worst recession since the great depression.

There is also insignificant climate data to get a bill passed.  Remember this is a weather phenomena not climate.

Especially after coming off of two back to back historic winters in Europe and Western Asia and North Africa.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Like the giant food conglomerates need another excuse to raise food prices.

They have been raising consumer food prices at rates completely unjustified by cost increases for the past 10 years.

They look at the drought as a great excuse to gouge even more and that is what you can expect.

Like our insurance companies and service providers they know they have a captive audience and they will exploit it right up to when they kill it.

KentCDetrees
KentCDetrees

I read that Round-up resistant Amaranth is worsening the effects of the drought because this weed thrives in hot, dry conditions, crowding out drought-weakened cash crops. However, Amaranth seeds are edible and, indeed, high in protein. So we should probably just be growing it on purpose.

Yacko
Yacko

The greens are edible too, a very good "fake" spinach.

Kent R
Kent R

Between the actual price of food and the heard mentality of hoarders encouraged to buy now and buy heavy foods that can be stored for a few months  and scare factor  prices jump just like gasoline prices ain food i nflation happens  as in winter  just before a big snow storm   milk and bread are often  bought out  fast for fear of running out..   this news may be alarmist and may be accurate but can be a cause of the problem too.. 

Les Moore
Les Moore

"Corn is already above $7 a bushel . . ."

Is that a lot? How can I tell?

Russ Finley
Russ Finley

 The ten year average for corn prior to the legislation that mandated ethanol blending was $2.00 a bushel. Ethanol doubled that average price with occasional spikes near $7. The drought will likely hold the price high. The spikes will be interesting to see.