The expanding threat of prolonged drought appears the most significant near-term challenge to your success as a beef producer. You've survived the low prices of the late 1990s to find good profits on calves and yearlings this year. And demand for your product by consumers is growing again for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president.

In agriculture, however, nothing works without rain. Drought may force you into different production strategies and could even force you to liquidate some or all of your herd. A dry summer in the Corn Belt would also push grain prices higher, negatively impacting feedyard costs of gain. In short, adequate rainfall means money to your business.

While you're fretting over the lack of rain this summer, know that the world is also weather watching. Global warming is no longer a cry in the wilderness from a handful of tree-hugging, bird-watching, environmental radicals. Environmental responsibility is now mainstream. This year's presidential candidates, for instance, must have an environmental policy if they hope to capture the attention of a significant block of voters who believe environmental issues should be a priority.

In the midst of this heightened alarm about the environmental health of our world comes a report that says nearly 40 percent of the Earth's land used for agriculture is "seriously degraded." The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global agricultural research network, released a report last month in Washington, D.C. and Dresden, Germany. It finds evidence that soil degradation has already reduced food production on about 16 percent of the world's cropland.

In some areas, the report says, the damage is much greater. Almost 75 percent of farmland in Central America is seriously degraded, as is 20 percent of the land in Africa, the researchers claim. Most of that land is range and pasture land.

Soil degradation occurs because of erosion from flooding; chemical effects such as nutrient depletion; and damage from water logging or compaction of soil to the point where nothing can grow. "Some combination of those effects is occurring across the globe," says Phil Padey, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, one of 16 research centers within the consultative group that released the report.
The declining condition of the Earth's soils is important because the need for food is increasing steadily along with the world's population. World production of cereal grains is 1.8 billion tons, but, the report says, by 2020 we need to increase that by 40 percent with little new land to bring into agriculture. "We're at a point where we have to learn to manage soils and production systems to maintain the levels of productivity we need," Dr. Padey says.

Offering a reason for optimism, Dr. Padey says, "Not all soil degradation is irreversible. We're learning to manage those reesources better than in the past, and in many areas (of developed countries), soil quality is improving."

A final version of the study will be released along with a report on the world's ecosystems in September. And if the drought lingers until Labor Day, it is likely that report will receive greater interest from the national media. Either way, the report on soils, and the heightened interest on environmental issues, will increase demands that you continue as a good steward of the land and its natural resources.