Famine: Thinking About the Unthinkable

By David L. Brown

First we must remember that our betters in Washington and various other places touched by the generous hand of Exxon/Mobil have repeatedly and vigorously assured us that there is no global warming … and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain with the flame thrower! But it does elicit a bit of concern when we read weather stories such as this one today from CNN.com:

West Bakes in Triple-Digit Heat

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) — Temperatures reaching the 120s left millions holed up indoors Friday and made leaders in the West nervous about the strain on their cities’ electric grids.

In Las Vegas — which Thursday tied its highest-recorded temperature ever, 117 degrees Fahrenheit — transformers overheated, causing electrical pole fires as people cranked up their air conditioners, said Scott Allison of the Clark County Fire Department. Several areas have lost power for a few hours at a time, he said.
….
To the west, in Needles, California, Mayor Jeff Williams said the city was “trying to have people conserve” power. At 3:30 a.m. Friday, the temperature was a sweltering 94 degrees. The city expected to hit 124 degrees Friday afternoon, he said.

Meanwhile, Kansas has been flooded and Oklahoma and Texas continue to be pounded by almost daily rainfall that has been going on for weeks with no end in sight. No climate change is involved, of course. That man with the flame thrower is just George Bush hosting a BBQ, and everything will be just hunky dory with lots of pie in the sky by and by.

Seriously, for an idea of how severe the present heat wave is, and how widespread, here is a map from NOAA showing the temperatures as forecast across the United States at 5 p.m. EDT today, or just about as I am writing this:

t4_conus.jpg

Pay particular attention to the color bar across the top of the map, which shows that the orange, red, and dark red identifies areas where temperatures are soaring into the hundreds and as high as 120+ degrees. The affected areas range as far north as Montana’s border with Canada (and, we can assume, into the Canadian Plains themselves).

What would be the result should this early summer heat wave spread to the Midwest Corn Belt and something like the conditions of the early 1950s set in just as the 2007 corn crop reaches its most critical growth stage? It takes only a few days of 100+ degree temperatures to seriously reduce corn yields, and a sustained heat wave in the 110 degree range could destroy the crop entirely in many areas.

It is absolutely possible for something like that to happen. It has happened before, as I well recall from 1954 — which was well BEFORE the global thermostat started taking off like a 4th of July rocket. That year in my home town of Columbia, Missouri the total rainfall recorded was just 25.12 inches, versus an average normal rainfall amount of 39.33 inches. But it’s not the lack of water that makes a drought such a serious problem for crops — it’s the heat, as explained in a paper titled “The Drought Myth,” by the late Dr. William A. Albrecht, a distinguished soil scientist.

Albrecht made an ominous point: Based on observations made at the University of Missouri, corn and other crops that are growing vigorously are the most susceptible to damage from heat. Test plots on the university’s Sanborn Field have been grown and studied continuously since 1888, providing one of the most extensive records of crop response to various inputs including climate variation. Wrote Dr. Albrecht:

During the drought of 1954 the different levels of soil fertility represented by the plots on Sanborn Field suggested forcefully that the drought may be injurious to plant processes because of high temperatures. It suggested also a more severe injury to plant tissues according as the higher soil fertility represented more actively growing plants. … [In the case of the most heavily fertilized corn plots] the tassel had not emerged. There were no shoots or sign of ears. More significant, however, was the observation that the leaves were badly bleached from their tips back to almost their mid-length. This part of the leaf tissue was dead.

Dr. Albrecht observed that vigorously growing plants which are producing proteins would be more susceptible to heat because of the fact that proteins are “thermolabile,” i.e., as he wrote, “are killed by temperatures going above 45 C or 113 F”.

Back in 1954 farmers used considerably less fertilizer than they do today, and crop yields were significantly lower. In Iowa that year, for example, the average yield was around 50 bushels per acre, which was not far from previous trends. Any farmer today would be economically destroyed should his crop come in at a similar yield. Pushing for ever higher returns per acre, in recent years yields of 200 and even up to 300 bushels per acre have been routinely realized in the most productive areas of the Corn Belt thanks in large part to intensive use of chemical fertilizer.

So, following Dr. Albrecht’s conclusions, we can assume that highly fertilized, rapidly growing corn crops such as are the norm today would be extremely susceptible to heat damage. And a temperature of 113 degrees, even for a short time, would kill the plants entirely. Could such a heat wave create a catastrophic reduction in crop yields in the Corn Belt? The answer is clearly “yes,” and if it doesn’t happen this year it is sure to take place at some point as the planet grows warmer and the climate morphs into unfamiliar patterns.

What would it mean if the total U.S. corn crop were to drop by, oh, let’s say 50% (yes, it’s easily possible in the case of a widespread and severe heat wave!). If such an event should occur, two parallel scenarios would be working themselves out, one in our heretofore comfortable First World where people would be economically inconvenienced and distraught, and a far more serious one in the Third World which cannot sustain its population burden without First World aid and sometimes massive imports of food.

In the First World scenario here in the United States, a catastrophic reduction in the corn crop would cause the price of beef, pork, chicken and dairy products to climb to levels that would cause Americans to protest loudly and dramatically change their spending habits. Thirty dollar steaks would go unsold because the price would be too high for most budgets. A bucket of Kentucky Fried could go for as much as a tank of gas. Butter could be at $12 a pound and milk at $8 a gallon. And much of those food items would also go unsold because consumers would turn to eating whatever cheaper alternatives they could find.

Ranchers, cattle feeders, hog farmers, poultrymen and dairy farmers would go broke in droves, crushed between the high cost and inavailability of grain and the reluctance of consumers to pay the necessary high prices for their products. Herds would be sent to slaughter and bankers would be forced to launch thousands of foreclosure actions. As the producers of meat and milk go down the tube along with the bankrupted crop farmers, an agricultural depression would devastate farm country, encompassing the small towns and cities that exist as part of the farm economy and sending shock waves to Wall Street and beyond.

There would be one good result, at least in my opinion: Every ethanol plant in the nation would be shut down and mothballed, probably for good, because there would be no feedstock grain available at a price that would make economic sense to turn into fake gasoline (not that it makes sense at any price).

And, there would be ZERO grain to export — which leads us to the second parallel scenario, the impact on the hungry world which relies on the U.S. for the lion’s share of import-export food trade. Here, the damage would be catastrophic.

Poor people all around the world, about one billion of which are already living on the brink of starvation, would fall into the pit of Famine. What would happen in, for example, Egypt? That over-populated country supports its tens of millions of people thanks in large part to U.S. foreign aid money which is used to buy American corn, which in turn is used to feed chickens and other livestock. (The whole foreign aid thing in their case, and many others, is a scheme by our government to put money in the pockets of American farmers and grain dealers in the guise of helping less fortunate nations, but that is a subject for another day.) In the face of a devastated U.S. corn crop we could still send Egypt and other countries the foreign aid money — but they can’t eat that and there would be no corn for them to spend it on.

This desperate scenario would be repeated around the Third World in dozens of nations that were already failed, failing, or in danger of failing. Massive outrage would spread among the hungry masses as starvation became a fact of … well, not life but the other thing. Many would refuse to go quietly into that good night, but instead engage in anarchistic mayhem that has not been seen since the fall of Khartoum. Demand for food would go unmet as prices become impossibly high or food becomes completely unobtainable.

When such a tipping point is reached, people will attempt to survive by whatever means possible. Remember that in the Third World AK-47s are as common as Bibles in Baptist Country, so popular survival techniques would include murdering one’s neighbors for any food they might have, not to mention the horrible specter of cannibalism.

Prepare to see something like this happening if a dramatic heat wave should take place in the Corn Belt this year. And do not forget that a major event of that kind is not at all beyond the realm of possibility. It has happened before in a time half a century ago when crops were far less susceptible to heat damage. The troubles could affect as many as several billion of the world’s population, especially if drought and heat were to continue to spread in other regions as they already are in Africa and Australia. Imagine the scenario of successive heat waves spreading across China and India, between them home to about one-third of all humans on Earth, as the world continues to heat up and climate change begins to really set its teeth into human civilization like a ravenous, rabid beast.

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