By David L. Brown
The drought in America not only isn’t getting better…it’s getting a lot worse. The combination of heat and lack of rain has put a large portion of the nation’s field crop prospects in severe jeopardy. The Associated Press today has an update, and the news is far from encouraging. (You can read the AP article, “Report: Drought Worsens in Key Farm States” here):
The latest statistics from reporting agencies reveal that the proportion of cropland in Iowa that’s in extreme or exceptional drought more than doubled just in the last week, from 30.74 percent to 69.14 percent now. In Illinois, the levels of extreme or exceptional drought rose to 81.18 percent. And in Nebraska, the percentage of land in those categories rose by another 8 percentage points to 91.2 percent of the total.
It’s hard to grasp just how serious the implications of such catastrophic figures are for our future, and the degree to which the situation has worsened in just since the last weekly report is ominous to say the least. Overall, more than one-half of the nation’s corn crop is rated poor to very poor.
The conditions in Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska are particularly serious. You may think, well those are only three states so can it really matter that much? Well, first, they’re not the only states that are in trouble, but there’s something special about those three, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. That special thing is that they are generally our nation’s three largest producers of corn. Let’s look at last year as a benchmark. According to a USDA report issued in September, 2011, Iowa’s corn production was projected at 2,296,250,000 bushels. Illinois came in second at 1,980,300,000 bushels, and Nebraska was in third place at 1,544,000,000 bu. Between those three states alone a total of 5, 820,550,000 bushels were projected. That’s just under six billion bushels of corn.
How much was the entire nation projected to produce when the harvest was done? Good question, I’m glad you asked. The answer is 12,497,070,000 bushels. About 12.5 billion bushels, of which about 5.8 billion came from those three states of Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska. Which means that those three states represent about 46.4 percent of America’s total corn crop as of 2011 and the other 47 states produced only 53.6 percent of the total (and just to make sure you understand, crops in many of those states are experiencing extreme drought stress).
Note also that the U.S. usually grows about 40 percent of all the corn in the world, and is the largest exporter by far. What all this means is that that old Nemesis Famine is about to stalk the planet. Drought is also being experienced in other parts of the world, including India and China with their huge populations that need to be fed. Some countries, such as Egypt with about 80 million people in a country that is 97 percent sandy desert, are almost totally reliant on imports of grains, including corn which is used to grow livestock and poultry for food. Other nations, such as Mexico with its need for tortillas, are also dependent upon imports of American corn.
And then we come to the real wild card in all of this, because about 35 percent of our corn crop has been going to make ethanol, not for feed or food products.
So we are facing an unprecedented worldwide food crisis and the obvious thing to do is to immediately stop ethanol production to preserve as much of the corn crop for food and exports as possible. That’s such plain common sense that there couldn’t possibly be any hesitation at all about taking this important step. But, what’s that? Oh, I just heard from the USDA and they say, “absolutely not.” The government’s position is that despite a looming world food disaster and the possible death by starvation of hundreds of millions we must continue to subsidize the use of precious corn to be turned into poor quality supplemental gasoline because shut up, that’s why.
Incidentally, I’ve used corn as an example of what the drought and heat are doing to our crops. Soybeans are also being hit, along with anything else that grows in the fields. And in the west, ranchers are sending their brood cows to slaughter because pastures have dried up and the hay crops for winter forage are virtually nonexistent. Brood cows are the seeds for future beef production, so we can expect beef to become not only scarce, but as the president of a major food company was quoted recently, priced well beyond the ability of ordinary people to afford. Same applies to pork, chicken, and milk. Those animals all need corn and soybean meal to grow and thrive, and if there’s not enough to go around the producers just won’t be able to produce.
The outlook is bad for Americans, because the cost of food is going to rise, and in fact already is as anyone who’s been in a supermarket lately is well aware. For many peoples in the Third World, it’s going to be a lot worse than an inconvenience, but literally the difference between life and death. For perspective on the possible effects on political stability, scroll down for my recent essay “A Tragedy in the Making” (or just click here).