Soaring temperatures and low precipitation could not occur at a worse time for many U.S. producers and farmers. Intensifying drought conditions are affecting corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, raising commodity prices and fueling concerns about increased food prices.
The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows a sickening concentration of dark brown and red colors—indicating the most severe drought conditions—spread across the Ohio River Valley and the Midwest, western Kansas and Nebraska and across northern Georgia. About 88 percent of the current corn crop and 77 percent of the soybean harvest are now affected by what USDA is characterizing as the worst drought in nearly 30 years.
In all, the department is providing drought assistance to more than 1,500 counties across 32 states. Even now, corn is selling at around $9 a bushel, up 50 percent from early June, with soybean prices at a record high of $17 a bushel.
In the short term, of course, some farmers will benefit from soaring prices, but producers could face crippling cost increases for basic commodities. Consumers might actually see softer prices for meat and poultry in the short term, as growers and producers sell off livestock. But ultimately, the effects of this year’s drought are not going to be pretty.
Looking at a bigger picture
All this bad news isn’t just about higher prices. The larger concern is about food security—or at least it ought to be—and that is tied directly to sustainability. An affordable food supply is important, but food security trumps even that most basic of priorities.
Thus, it is intriguing to review a series of proposed agricultural innovations offered by the Worldwatch Institute. We won’t review the organization’s longstanding opposition to biotech, nor its embrace of Meatless Mondays as some sort of global panacea. However, five of their 12 suggestions ring true and could—if implemented—have a positive effect on all the issues of sustainability exacerbated by this summer’s drought.
1) Agroforestry. Planting trees as windbreaks reduces soil erosion from strong winds and excessive rainfall. Tree roots also stabilize and nourish soils. USDA’s National Agroforestry Center promotes tree planting not only to control erosion but as an integrated component of forage and livestock production.
2) Smarter irrigation. The Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies essential groundwater to the Midwest, is experiencing record rates of depletion. However, some studies show that nearly one-half of irrigation water is wasted, due to evaporation, improper designs and overwatering. Installing water sensors, using micro-irrigation technology and designing more water-efficient farms would help greatly.