Drought taking its toll on farmers, consumers
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Hopes to get a farm bill passed before Congress went on its summer recess dried up faster than the Midwest’s cornfields.
The House, though, did pass legislation to help drought-stricken ranchers get through a season in which corn has been plowed under and the second major crop, soybeans, has been taking a beating in the fields as well. The Senate is expected to act on the bill when it returns after Labor Day.
In the meantime, while the Senate has passed a comprehensive five-year farm bill to succeed the one that expires Sept. 30, the bill has languished in the House.
The emergency bill had been part of past farm bills but the authorizing legislation for that section of it expired at the end of last year, explained Bob Gronski, a policy analyst with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
The corn and bean growers can take advantage of a long-standing crop insurance program, “and if they don’t, they’ve made a big mistake,” Gronski said, with risk management “made just for these situations.”
Drought or near-drought conditions have been reported in nearly half of all counties in the contiguous United States, a sharp increase from last summer’s drought and high heat that scorched much of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
The drought has repercussions for more than just farmers. Consumers worldwide are feeling the pinch. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Program reported that food prices worldwide jumped 6 percent in July.
Domestically, food prices have edged upward, although not nearly as steeply as elsewhere. Gronski told Catholic News Service that the impact of the drought won’t be fully known until it’s harvest time for corn and soybeans later in the year.
If corn is in short supply, does the price of Corn Chex go up, or do the makers of Wheat Chex and Rice Chex also raise their prices or keep them stable?
It’s not that simple, answered Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist director of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California-Davis. But it follows the Economics 101 law of supply and demand.
“Wheat prices have gone up, rice less so,” Sumner said. “There’s not as much Corn Chex in the market because corn’s real expensive…. You raise the price of corn, and people who have the option shift from corn to rice, or to Rice Chex from Corn Chex. If you’re using corn meal to make tortillas, maybe you’ll eat more rice and beans to make up for the tortilla. If there’s more demand for rice, the price goes up.”
Sumner told CNS he expects food prices to stay elevated for up to two years unless the drought comes to a quick end.
One element in the discussion that often goes overlooked is how prevalent corn and soybeans are in the making of food products. Soybeans — a crop that can still be salvaged if the drought breaks — are commonly used in vegetable oil. Corn — in the form of high fructose corn syrup — is used as a sweetener in everything from soft drinks to breakfast cereal.
And then there’s the corn not used in consumer goods. Corn is a staple of livestock feed — one reason the House acted on the emergency relief legislation. Sumner estimated, for example, half of the cost of an egg is based on the cost of feed.
Then there is the matter of corn used as fuel. Federal law prescribes the use of corn in the making of ethanol, taking untold thousands of acres of farmland out of production for consumer foodstuffs in the quest for alternatives to fossil fuels.
“Our position at NCRLC is to quickly move corn out of the production of ethanol,” Gronski said. “That was always the push before, but it was more difficult than they realized” to use wood chips or cornstalks as substitutes. “The efficiencies aren’t there yet, and the costs are prohibitive to move into the second generation” of ethanol production, he added.
One country that’s made a successful transition, Gronski noted, is Brazil. “They’ve gone into sugar cane to produce their ethanol. Part of that (fuel) comes into the United States, just like corn ethanol goes into Brazil,” he said, the result of trade agreements. “Parts of Asia have another crop that they can use (for ethanol), Gronski said. “There are other alternatives, but the U.S. is still stuck.”
An underlying issue is what is causing the drought. Temperatures have been so high, and the weather so dry, that not just crops are suffering. Water temperatures are rising. Fish are dying in lakes and rivers in the nation’s agricultural heartland, fouling not only the water but also the intake valves of municipal water processing plants.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported Aug. 7 that July 2012 was the hottest month since records were first kept more than 140 years ago.
“What has been clear is that the scientists for many, many years now have said that the extremes — droughts, floods, more severe weather — are going to become more common,” said Dan Misleh, head of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, “not only in the U.S. but around the world,” pointing to the recent massive flooding in the Philippines capital of Manila and 2010′s Russian drought.
“All these things are indications that we’re entering a period of these extremes, and I think that most scientists will say that when this becomes more of a pattern they will be able to attribute it more to climate change,” he told CNS.
Misleh noted that the past 10 years rank among the warmest 12 years ever recorded, with climate scientists linking human activity to global warming.
“Regardless of the costs, we have a responsibility for alleviating the immediate suffering of people who are in these drought conditions, and we’re in a pretty good position to help out,” Misleh said, pointing to Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services as vehicles for aid. “That’s why the Catholic Coalition is for caring for creation and caring for the poorest people who have the least means to get out of the way of these extremes.”
Misleh’s bottom line: “We have to develop a new and profound respect for the creative order.”