US drought, Russian winter threaten global food security
The United States farming heartland is suffering amid the country’s worst drought in 25 years.
While it is always hotter in the summer months, a drastic lack of snow caused tiny amounts of meltwater to soak into the soil. Without water the cereals simply cannot grow.
The drought has many causes, but the worst the US suffered for 800 years in 2000-04 is being blamed by some scientists as a potential amplifier.
A recent study in the journal Nature Geoscience predicts, “the situation will continue to worsen and that 80 of the 95 years from 2006 to 2100 will have precipitation levels as low as, or lower than, this 'turn of the century' drought from 2000-04.
“Towards the latter half of the 21st century the precipitation regime associated with the turn of the century drought will represent an outlier of extreme wetness,” the scientists wrote. These long-term trends are consistent with a 21st century “megadrought”, they said.
This makes depressing reading but the evidence is clear in the brown, withering American farming heartland.
More than 60% of the lower 48 states are in drought. The situation is so pronounced that Nasa has released satellite images of the Mississippi River at around 2.4 river stage water levels, the lowest for years.
Analysis of the US Drought Monitor reveals two-thirds of American land area is in mild or extreme drought.
Costliest natural disaster in US history
Government agencies are issuing predictions ranging from severe to the “costliest natural disaster in US history” for the affected states, the National Weather Information Service says.
The Department of Agriculture has declared 1297 counties across 29 states as disaster areas after crop losses caused by low rainfall and extreme heat.
And because the US is an enormous cereals exporter, the drought will affect the rest of the world as cereal prices rise.
Field corn makes up a large part of the cereal crop. The starch the corn creates is mostly used to feed livestock or produce ethanol. Less than 1% of US corn is canned or eaten fresh.
Around 40% is used to produce ethanol, up from 7.5% on 2001. In other words, 38 million of a total 96 million acres of planted US corn.
And consumption is only going to increase in the years ahead as "greener" technologies are used instead of traditional fossil fuels.
United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation director-general Jose Graziano da Silva, of Brazil, has called on the US to suspend biofuel production to ease pressure on cereal resources.
Coupled with a growing demand for cereals worldwide, especially in the developing world, the base price for corn and wheat will rise. The drought of 2012 will only exacerbate this trend.
Until cellulosic ethanol, produced from sugarcane, experiences a maturing in technology, developed countries will continue to use corn for transport fuel, even though it is a global food source.
The drought is expected to decrease 2012 corn crop yields by 3% in comparison to 2011 while global drops could reach 8%.
Not much better
And the situation hasn’t been much better across the Atlantic.
It was reported on September 25 that Russian grain prices soared by more than 1000 rubles a tonne in a single week after low cereal crop yields.
Grain belts in the Volga, Krasnodar and Black Sea regions went through a destructive seven weeks of heavy rain and major flooding.
It was made worse by an extreme cold snap at the beginning of the year which left the soil extremely vulnerable to the floods in May.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the area in July to assess the damage after 171 people were killed and 12,000 displaced.
This was just the most recent in a list of dire problems for wheat production in the former Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, 20% of Ukraine’s wheat does not reach market because of poor-quality silos and transportation options for exporting the rest are equally shambolic.
Almost all the former Soviet Union countries and Russia have revised down their estimates of wheat production for 2012.
The US and European Union can usually make up the difference, but the Europeans are also experiencing unprecedented problems.
French wheat production fell by a third this spring after a biting winter. France is the world’s second largest wheat exporter and can usually be relied on to cover crop failure elsewhere.
International food prices are expected to rise as a result and the US is also the main exporter of soybeans and wheat.
A major concern for the UN is hoarding or export restrictions by food-producing countries as supplies dwindle and is anxious to avoid a repeat of the food riots sparked in 2007-08 by high prices.
Many international agencies predict higher prices next year as the pressure of drought starts to reach the world marketplace. At home, New Zealand primary producers watch with interest.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict