Wednesday, August 15, 2012

U.S. Drought, Climate Change Could Lead to Global Food Riots, Political Instability

It’s been a difficult year for U.S. agriculture. Record high temperatures and the country’s worst drought since 1956 have combined to decimate crops across the nation, and some forecasters are predicting more heat and dryness in the months ahead. Things have been so bad that many experts fear a recurrence of the food riots and instability that shook the world in 2007-8, and again in 2010-11. Others point to this year’s unusual weather in the United States and elsewhere as a harbinger of how climate change might impact humanity in the 21st century.

Things started out well enough earlier this year, as America’s farmers took advantage of the warmest March weather on recordan unusually warm March by planting the largest corn crop in 75 years. As late as May 10, the USDA was projecting that previous corn production and yield records would be shattered. “We’re looking at the potential for just a true bin-buster of a crop [this year],” grain expert and Iowa State University economics professor Chad Hart told The Huffington Post at the time. “There’s going to be a lot of corn flying around here.”

But those predictions came before a historic drought descended upon the country’s heartland, accompanied by soaring summer temperatures. In July, the USDA slashed its estimate for corn productionby 12 percent, the largest such adjustment in a quarter century. The organization released an evenbleaker update last Friday. Meanwhile, many commodity traders, believing the worst may still be yet to come, have reduced their own projections even further. Soybeans, which are frequently intercropped with corn, have also struggled with this summer’s conditions.

As optimism for the corn and soybean harvests has faded, commodity prices have surged. Corn futures have reached record highs, and soybeans have also seen dramatic price increases. Both commodities have now surpassed their peaks from the 2007-8 crisis that led to riots in more than two dozen countries across the world.

Even wheat, which is primarily a winter crop, has experienced a price increase of about 50 percent over the past two months. “If the price of corn rises high enough, it also pulls up the price of wheat,” Robert Thompson, a food security expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told The Guardian. Wheat has not yet outpaced its high from the 2007-8 crisis, but it is trading higher than after the Russian wheat export ban that helped lead to another crisis in 2010-11 (and ultimately, some analysts say, to the Arab Spring). More