Message from the Drought Crisis: Don’t Put All Your Eggs in America’s Breadbasket

For those who spent this year’s mild winter worrying about how incredibly hot the summer would be, recent damages to crops and homes should come as little surprise. Although the abnormally early spring delivered some benefits—such as one of the best blue crab seasons in a long time—they will be largely outweighed by the costs inflicted by the historic drought that is currently plaguing most of the United States, with particularly dire consequences in agricultural states.

The past year has been the warmest on record; more than two-thirds of the U.S. is experiencing drought conditions.  (Oklahoma Farm Reporter)

The word “historic” is not an exaggeration: the 12 months running from June 2011 to June 2012 are the warmest on record, and more than two thirds of U.S. farms are in drought conditions, a magnitude that has not been experienced since 1956 and is nearing Dust Bowl-like proportions.  

Read: 12 Innovations to Combat Drought, Improve Food Security, and Stabilize Food Prices

Amid fluctuating rain patterns and crop price speculation, one trend is already emerging: we can expect higher food prices worldwide starting next year, and perhaps as early as this autumn. The Climate Desk, a journalistic collaboration focused on climate change, recently published a helpful estimate of how some basic foods could be affected by 2013. For instance, a 20-ounce loaf of white bread would go from an average price of $1.81 to $1.96; a whole chicken would sell at $4.91, compared to the 2011 average of $4.52.

Overall, foods relying heavily on corn and soy for their production would experience a 3 to 5 percent price increase. That might seem like a relatively small share, but it can add up to a significant amount for the average U.S. family. Consequences could also be felt outside of the country. Although the droughts have not significantly affected rice and wheat (the main crops that were affected during the 2007 and 2010–11 food crises), U.S. corn and soy are imported by many countries worldwide, and substitution effects might cause these scarcities to put pressure on other food crops.

Among climate scientists, there is little doubt that the drought is linked to climate change. In discussions about recent wildfires in Colorado, most experts have talked in probabilities and scenarios, explaining that, even though it is hard to link one particular event to human-caused climate disruption, “this is what climate change looks like”: wildfires, heat waves, droughts, floods, and storms. These extreme weather events are becoming increasingly likely as climate change intensifies as a result of ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions.

What the link between extreme weather, food prices, and political instability tells us is that our societies are more interdependent than ever, starting with our agricultural system.

In these “I-told-you-so” times, public opinion is already shifting quickly: more than 70 percent of Americans now believe that climate change is occurring. Although it’s not certain whether this belief will remain strong during, say, a randomly cold winter, we must wonder what the current drought tells us about how human societies will evolve amid a disrupted and unpredictable climate.

Take, for instance, the interesting link that was recently pointed out between extreme weather, food prices, and political instability. The New England Complex Systems Institute published a fairly convincing graph correlating the number of protests worldwide to fluctuations in the global food price index (see right). The analysis came after many comments from Middle East experts, who qualified the 2010 food crisis as the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.

What this tells us, if we didn’t know it already, is that our societies are more interdependent than ever, starting with our agricultural system. India, Thailand, and Vietnam export nearly 70 percent of the world’s rice. The United States alone accounts for more than 20 percent of global wheat exports, the rest being supplied by the EU-27, Russia, Canada, Australia, and a handful of other countries. And, quite relevantly in the current drought, the United States produces more than a third of the world’s corn and soy, both major sources of animal feed stock.

Of course, food-related crises and riots could be seen as healthy manifestations of a system’s effort to self-regulate: people eat fewer resource-intensive animal products, importers turn to other players for cheaper and more reliable supplies, and nations topple tyrants. But gradual change is generally stronger, and more sustainable, than brutal change. The problem is that even in relatively stable countries, with functioning democracies, this gradual change is sometimes hard to bring about.

Due to a diminished harvest, foods reliant on corn and soy are projected to triple in price in coming months.  (AP//Jeff Morehead)

In the case of the U.S. Midwest, for instance, farmers benefit from generous crop insurance funds to cover the losses in corn and soy, and these benefits have only increased under the latest Farm Bill. However, as the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy reports, “acknowledgement of increased risk for agriculture has not been coupled with any specific acknowledgement of its primary cause—climate change—or of farmers’ need to take steps to make their cropping systems more resilient to extreme weather.” In short, farmers are financially encouraged to do more of the same, despite rapidly deteriorating conditions, and at a hefty cost to taxpayers. In a particularly absurd move, some are now proposing to fund this year’s crop insurance by cutting into conservation programs.

It would be easy to marvel at the fact that an intensely exploited portion of U.S. land has been feeding much of the world for decades. In the face of unprecedented environmental change, however, it is also necessary to take an honest look at a system that distorts the global market, nurtures dependence, and creates vulnerability. Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet program recently highlighted 12 agricultural innovations to improve drought resilience. Ranging from agroforestry to rotating crops and “Meatless Mondays,” some of these innovations come from other countries, and all of them emphasize one thing: diversity. Diversity in plants, in farming practices, in protein sources, and, I would add, diversity in producing countries.

Both the European Union and the United States will have trouble maintaining their subsidies and insurances in the midst of climate disruptions and slow economic recovery, and cutting into conservation funds to pay the bill would be spectacularly misguided. Innovations gathered by Worldwatch tell a different story: as nations start looking elsewhere for new crops, concentrated, subsidized agricultural systems should start looking elsewhere for new ideas.

Antoine Ebel | Re|Volt | August 24, 2012

Homepage image: This summer's historic drought is sure to affect more than just American consumers. (AP//Seth Perlman)

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