Ongoing Drought Hits Crops Hard
Corn prices are going up in the wake of a "flash drought" across much of the U.S.
Credit: Paul Orr, Shutterstock

The drought affecting much of the continental United States — not to mention the heat and dryness around the globe — has sent corn and wheat prices skyrocketing, scientists said today (July 25). And the current weather could be a taste of what to expect in future decades.

"Global warming helps make droughts hotter and drier than they would be without human influence," said Heidi Cullen, the chief climatologist for Climate Central, a non-profit organization dedicated to communicating the science of climate change. Cullen and Stanford University food security expert David Lobell spoke to the media on Wednesday about the effect of the current drought on agriculture.

The price of corn has risen by 50 percent, to $8 a bushel, from where it was last month. And a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released today suggests that consumers can expect to see the price of meat and dairy products rise as feed for livestock becomes more expensive.

"It's not really going to affect the price of a loaf of bread or a corn muffin directly, but it will affect the price of meat," Lobell said. "The real impact you see is in the countries where they really rely on raw corn and wheat for a larger part of their diet."

Drought worldwide

A map of national drought conditions as of July 10, 2012.
A map of national drought conditions as of July 10, 2012.
Credit: USDA/National Drought Mitigation Center/Dept. of Commerce/NOAA

Sixty-three percent of the area of the lower 48 U.S. states is in moderate to exceptional drought, Cullen said, but the weather and agriculture story is really a global one. Low rainfall in Australia, a late, weak monsoon in India, heat waves in Europe and a La Niña drought in Brazil have all impacted growing seasons, she said.

U.S. agriculture is important globally, because America produces much of the world's grain. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States produced 10 billion of the world's 23 billion bushels of corn in 2000. The U.S. produces 13 percent of the world's wheat and more than 50 percent of its soybeans. A combination of factors has led to what climatologists and meteorologists call a "flash drought" in much of the United States, including the agricultural center of the Corn Belt, Cullen said. [Worst Droughts in U.S. History]

La Niña, a climate pattern that pushes storm tracks north, set up this southern drought with dry conditions, Cullen said. Oppressively hot conditions in June and July followed, breaking records and sealing the deal for drought.

"Large portions of the Corn Belt need at least a foot of rain to effectively end the drought," Cullen said.

Drought and food security

To make matters worse, the drought hits at a time of tight demand worldwide, Lobell said. The last major drought in 1988 didn't affect food prices very much, he said. But now, with ethanol production eating up 40 percent of U.S. corn and demand for meat growing worldwide, the market is tight.

The United States has been spared much of the heat seen in Europe and Russia in recent years, but this year could mark the end of that good luck. Droughts happen naturally, Cullen said, but climate change increases their likelihood, and exacerbates their severity. Climate models suggest that a warming world will bring more drought to the Mediterranean, central North America, the U.S. Southwest and southern Africa, she said.

Humans can make an effort to adapt, Lobell said. Already, drought-resistant seeds are on the market; this year will be their first real test in the United States, he said. Irrigation and water conservation, including mulching and special tilling methods, are likely to be used. There may also be shifts in where crops are grown from drought-stricken to less-affected areas, Lobell said.

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