Drought, Corn, and the Specter of Global Hunger

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi


The drought currently besetting the U.S. is said to be the worst in fifty years.  Engulfing some 60% of the country, it has struck deep in the midwest and plains states, a region known as the nation’s grain basket, the heart of the global food supply. The harshest blow has fallen on the corn crop, which is pivotal to the task of feeding the world. According to the Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin, as of July 31st, 48% of the corn crop was rated poor and only 24% good or excellent. This is extremely disheartening when compared with last year’s rating of 14% poor and 62% good or excellent. Moreover, at this late point in the summer there is no chance left for a change of fortune, and farmers’ hopes and worries have now moved on to next year’s crop.

To grasp the full significance of the drought, it’s necessary to note that the U.S. corn harvest is the most abundant source of grain in the world. According to global systems expert Lester Brown, corn accounts for four-fifths of U.S. grain production. The U.S. leads the world as an exporter of corn, and many countries depend for sustenance on a healthy American corn harvest. A disruption in our corn stocks thus sends shock waves far and wide, portending increased hunger not only this year but in years to come.

Corn pervades the food chain in a variety of ways. It’s the primary component in livestock feed, so beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and dairy products are really transmutations of corn. Corn derivatives enter into a thousand other products, from coffee creamer to cooking oil. Thus when the annual corn crop is ravaged by drought, the impact ripples through the food chain, driving the prices of many food commodities upward. Since it takes 6 or 7 pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, higher meat prices mean more grain is available for direct consumption, which is certainly a good thing. However, the higher price of grain is bound to stretch the budgets of working families and leave the poor desperately hungry.

Mainstream news commentators have been speaking timidly of the drought simply as an “extreme weather event,” but climate scientists have no qualms about recognizing it as a manifestation of climate change. Deputy NOAA Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan spoke for many scientists when she said: “Every weather event that happens now takes place in the context of a changing global environment.”

James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was more explicit. In an opinion piece he recently wrote for the Washington Post he said:

Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change…. These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small.

If climate change underlies the drought and heat waves we’ve been experiencing, then it’s incumbent on us to act–and to act decisively–to stop its momentum. But how are we to do this? To avoid repeated droughts and heat waves in the future, the overwhelming imperative is to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Such an endeavor requires that we make CO2 emissions costly—perhaps through a carbon tax—and  expedite the process of replacing carbon fuels with renewable sources of energy.

But for such efforts to have a chance of succeeding, another critical step is necessary. We have to remove from office the obstructionists in government who persistently use tactics of denial and delay to block proposals to curb global warming. They must be replaced, as soon as possible, with representatives who are attuned to reality, who recognize the urgency of tackling climate change. This is not a matter of politics but of emergency care for our country and our planet.

Congress may vote against the scientific consensus that the climate is changing. Senator James Inhofe may say that man-made global warming is “the greatest hoax ever.” The North Carolina legislature may ban the state from admitting that sea levels are rising. But the hubris of our elected officials is powerless against the implacable laws of physics and chemistry. While they may continue to enjoy their steak dinners and their eggs and cheese for breakfast, it’s the rest of the world that must pay the price.

If we allow the deniers to continue to have their way, we’ll be visited by more frequent and intense droughts year after year. Then we’ll have to deal with more failed harvests, with escalating food prices, with food shortages and famines, with millions of starving kids trekking miles for a meal. We must act promptly, for the drought of 2012 is proof that we don’t have the luxury of dithering. Climate change is no longer a proposition about the future. It’s the reality in which we live today.

2 responses to “Drought, Corn, and the Specter of Global Hunger

  1. Another blog says year-over-year prices of corn, soybean and wheat have risen by as much as 16% to 31%. http://www.agweb.com/blog/Farmland_Forecast_148/

    On the other hand, the volume food waste is astounding in USA!!!
    “Current figures show how half of food in the U.S. and a third of food in the UK goes to waste. In the U.S., this amounts to total losses of up to $100 billion per year, $20 billion of that occurring in the farm and processing sectors, and $30-40 billion occurring in the retail sector. Household losses account for a further $40 billion, reveals research conducted by Arizona Researcher Dr Timothy Jones”

    A wiki article talks about industrial farming practices based on monoculture of commodity crops. The price of corn has been declining steadily. Currently, the price of one bushel of corn is about one dollar less than the cost of growing it. “The American farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything he buys at retail, sells everything he sells at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.” – John F. Kennedy
    The profits are shifting from farmers to those who are benefited by overproduction and low crop prices: the companies who transport, process, package and market the final products. Such farms have many undesirable effects on sustainable local economy and global environment.

    Fossil fuel consumed by the factory farm industry is a major contributor to global warming but so is animal flatulence, making livestock production the main source of human-made methane emissions, responsible for 22% of the total human contribution.

    Click to access hsus-the-impact-of-industrialized-animal-agriculture-on-the-environment.pdf

    Scientists predict(ed) that Amazon forests will not absorb their usual 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere in both 2010 and 2011, and that a further 5 billion tonnes of CO2 will be released to the atmosphere over the coming years once the trees that are killed by the new drought rot.

    Global warming is a systemic problem arising out of multiple causes and conditions and it needs to be addressed on many levels.

  2. Charles W. Elliott

    As if to underscore this blog post, the New York Times reported today that because of the drought, the U.S. is expecting the worst corn yield in 17 years, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said global food prices had jumped 6 percent in July, with the price of corn up 23 percent, and corn futures are trading for about $8.12 a bushel, up from about $5.20 a bushel in June. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/11/business/projections-for-corn-yield-falls-to-17-year-low.html