The Drought Sees Its Shadow

—by Roxanne Bergeron

It's Groundhog Day! And what a great pagan holiday it is, falling as it does right between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox to commemorate the coming of spring, early or otherwise.

Remember that classic Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," where Phil (yeah, like the groundhog Phil) lives the same day over and over and over again until he finally "gets it" and moves on in love for living? Sometimes it seems drought is our repetitive reality, its long shadow cast over and over and over....

In 2011 a searing drought spread across parts of Texas and Georgia, decimating peanut crops and bringing a spike in the price of peanut butter, an essential staple in countless households and food banks. In 2012, extreme drought conditions from southern Minnesota down through Texas had a similar effect on corn and soybean fields, driving up those prices and spurring a concomitant increase in the cost of feed, which kept moving like a freight train with its cargo of increases in meat, poultry, and dairy prices for 2012 and 2013.1

Rising meat and dairy prices

Citing sources as diverse as the USDA, the Consumer Price Index, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Star Tribune reported that:

  • Beef prices, which rose 10% in 2011, were on board to rise another 5.5 to 6.5% in 2012, with yet an additional increase of 3 to 4% in 2013. Two drought-smacked years in a row led to a move by the U.S. beef industry to a "multiyear contraction" of the herd.
  • Poultry prices were anticipated to hike 5 to 6% in 2012 and another 3 to 4% in 2013.
  • Pork price hikes were estimated at 1 to 2% for 2012 as farmers "liquidate" animals in the face of rising feed prices and create a market glut, but pork prices are anticipated to see a rise of 3 to 4% in 2013.
  • Dairy products were headed for a rise about 2 to 3% in 2012 then another 3.5 to 4.5% in 2013.
  • So-called "food-at-home" prices—the overall grocery bill—were expected to climb 2.5 to 3% in 2012.1

Then there's the rising cost of feed:

  • Soybeans prices went from $13 a bushel in July to $17 in August then back down to $15 in December.
  • Corn prices jumped from $5.50 a bushel in July to $8 a bushel in August then dipped back down to $7.5 in December—a troublesome increase in the face of a rising global demand for corn not only as fuel but as feed for meeting protein needs via animal products in the developing world.

We are not alone...

Last July in the New York Times,2 Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at
the University of Minnesota, described the Midwest as "vast monocultures" of corn and soybean fields. He compared the investment in only two crops to a mutual fund investing in only two companies and commented that diversifying crops from just the two to dozens of crops would help guarantee annual production and income.

He added that corn and soybeans are mainly used to produce feed and ethanol, rather than feeding people.

"A system that replaces some of the corn/soybean belt with grains, fruits and vegetables that go directly into the human diet and with grasslands to feed animals and create cellulosic biofuels would feed more people, and be far more resilient to climatic extremes," he said.

Drought goes global

The September 5 issue of the New York Times3 ran an article exploring the global effect of the Midwest drought. But alongside the compromised U.S. corn crop, Russia and Ukraine droughts have had a detrimental effect on their wheat harvest, and soybean production is hurting in Brazil.

The article reported that, according to the World Bank, 2012 food prices jumped 10% between June and July, with corn and wheat rising 25% and soybean prices jumping 17%, and that leaders from the World Bank, the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and other global organizations were calling for countries that depend on imports for food to develop "safety-net programs for the poor," a bolstering of local production and to resist panic buying.

The dependence of nations on the politics of other nations is an unkind gambit, and wherever environmental instability, politics, and monocultures collide, disaster results.

The Irish potato famine

A tragic example of this is the great Irish potato famine of 1845. At this point in history, nearly half of the population of Ireland was dependent on the potatoes that could be grown in bounty on small plots rented from landlords. A fungus from Mexico laid waste to the Irish potato monoculture, and between 1845 and 1855, 750,000 Irish people died, and another two million immigrated to Great Britain, the U.S., and Canada.4

The complexities of 19th–century United Kingdom politics are beyond the scope of this article, but history reminds us that when a single crop, such as a seemingly hearty variety of potato, is the mainstay of a people, their vulnerability is beyond measure.
Ireland was decimated by potato blight. Is a Midwest dotted with corn and soybean fields a portent for a similar global scourge?

And now it's corn...

The July 2012 issue of Mother Jones described the United States as the "biggest player in the corn world market" and estimated that the world corn supply could lose 60 billion tons of the tasseled grain due to the drought.5

Last September, the New York Times3 reported that international action was being urged to prevent global food prices from spiking in the face of "the worst drought in half a century withering corn across the Midwest."

Drought and climate change

Climate change is considered by many to be at the heart of these persistent, pernicious global droughts. But as one fishes the media stream for explanations and strategies for remedy, one cannot help but notice a certain unwillingness to definitively link the one with the other.

Last November, the Iowa Climate Statement declared that the 2012 drought is the kind of extreme weather condition predictable and consistent with global climate change.6 The report was an update from its 2010 version, and the 138 scientists and researchers from 27 Iowa colleges and universities released the report while the drought was still "fresh in the public's mind." The article indicates that, while the scientists carefully avoided saying that global warming is directly causative for any particular extreme weather event, "they did say increasingly volatile weather patterns have been predicted by scientists who study global warming."

One might consider that diversity— of species and of political will—was, is, and will always be crucial to the health of the people of the world and to the health of the world itself.

In honor of the robust survival of the Irish people, here's a recipe for Irish Soda Bread7 to commemorate St. Patrick's Day, which falls a few days before the Vernal Equinox. (Sorry—you're on your own for roast groundhog.)

Irish Soda Bread

3½ cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons caraway seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (approximately) buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425°F. Lightly flour baking sheet. Mix flour, caraway seeds, if using, baking soda, and salt in large bowl.

Mix in enough buttermilk to form moist clumps. Gather dough into ball. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead just until dough holds together, about 1 minute.

Shape dough into 6-inch-diameter by 2-inch-high round. Place on prepared baking sheet. Cut 1-inch-deep X across top of bread, extending almost to edges. Bake until bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, about 35 minutes. Transfer bread to rack and cool completely.

References:
1. www.startribune.com/business/182597701.html
2. www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/07/25/how-can-we-prevent-another-dust...
3. www.nytimes.com/2012/09/05/business/experts-issue-a-warning-as-food-pric...
4. www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/irish_potato_famine.cfm
5. www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/07/consumers-face-droughts-long-pri...
6. www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/19/iowa-scientists-drought-climate-statem...
7. www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/holidays/stpatricks/sodabread/recipes/...

[Roxanne Bergeron is a local writer and HP C volunteer cashier. She has a particular interest in issues surrounding climate change.]