Friday, August 31, 2012

Keeping up with news of the corn belt drought

Much of the damage to the midwest crops had already been done by, say, the third week in July.  So of course, the rains from Isaac are coming too late for this year's crop.  On the other hand, the total soil moisture is so low that fall rains are a welcome recharge for a severely dried-up land.  The drought-resistant corn varieties are that way because they are more efficient at extracting water from soil (which is why corn that failed to grow ears can still look green.)  So this crop failure could easily be setting up an even bigger crop failure next year.  As a result, very few will be complaining if we actually have a wet fall.

Rain comes too late for Iowa's corn crop as drought weighs on midwest minds

Farmers hope for better next year after summer of record drought leads to rising prices and brings tensions to the surface
Dominic Rushe in Des Moines, Thursday 30 August 2012

Flying into Des Moines, the corn fields look surprisingly green. America's midwest produces half the world's corn and Iowa its largest harvest, yet amid the worst drought in living memory all the untrained eye can see is the occasional brown mark, like a cigarette burn on the baize of a pool table.

But appearances can be deceptive.

In Boone, Iowa, 30 miles away from the state capital, traffic backs up for miles bringing 200,000 people to Farm Progress, the US's largest agricultural show one. Here, all the talk is of the drought.

Pam Johnson, first vice-president of the National Corn Growers Association, says she can't remember one as bad as this in her 40 years of farming. "My parents say you have to go back to the 1930s for anything comparable," she says. In June, her farm in northern Iowa got an inch and a half of rain. "We usually get that a week. In July we got seven-tenths of an inch, for the month." Rain may be coming soon, thanks to hurricane Isaac, but it's too late for America's corn crop.

The US planted 97m acres of corn for this year's crop – the most since 1937. If everything had gone according to plan, this year's harvest would have produced a new record, at close to 15bn bushels of corn (a bushel is 24 million metric tonnes). It's too early to say what the final tally will be, but the US department of agriculture has slashed its forecast to 10.8bn. Dan Basse, president of AgResources, an independent agriculture analyst, says that figure is likely to come down. "We've lost 4bn bushels of corn. That's the largest loss in history, and we could lose another," he says. The USDA has declared counties in 38 states to be "disaster areas". About 72% of cattle areas are experiencing drought.

Corn prices are at record highs, suggesting corn producers might be among the few winners in this situation. But many sold their crop before the drought swept the country, and those with corn to sell now have less of it.

Nevertheless, the price hike has set corn producers against livestock farmers and by the end of the year food prices will rise. The spike in food prices is unlikely to be enough to ruffle US consumers. Basse says the people likely to feel it most are the 1.7bn people across the world who get by on $2 a day. "They are the ones who will really suffer," he says. In 2008 drought-driven food price rises led to unrest in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Things could have been a lot worse this year, says Johnson. She says bio-tech and agricultural innovations have allowed corn to produce even during this record drought. Those still greenish fields are only green thanks to bio-engineered corn, she says. "If we were using the seeds my parents had used, we would really be in trouble. Those plants would all have fallen over" she says.

But for the livestock industry, it's not enough. Jeff Erb, a Boone county cattleman who farms a few miles from the show, says he has not witnessed a summer this dry since 1985. "And that was nowhere near as bad," he says. "Temperatures were pushing a hundred for nine, 10 days after another. The creeks are dry, the pastures been gone since June.

"A lot of guys have been using their winter supplies this summer."

Corn costs are $8 a bushel – double what he paid last year. A large round bail of hay costs $150-$160 – also double last year's price. And while his costs have soared, there's little chance cattle farmers will be able to put their prices up. "We have no control at all," he says.

Erb says there's no point in blaming corn producers. Others are less sanguine. At the show there are dark words about "profiteers" and "speculators" but no one wants to attack their fellow farmers on the record. In private, they are lobbying hard. Arkansas congressman Steve Womack is leading a charge to repeal a law that requires 10% of the US's gasoline supply to come from corn-based ethanol – a law that swallows up to 40% of the country's annual corn production. "If something isn't done – and done fast – food prices will soar," he said in a recent statement. In the 2008 drought it was Cuba's Fidel Castro leading the charge against America's use of food for fuel. more
Because there are a lot of folks in USA living very close to the economic edge, raising food prices are going to hurt right here at home.  Even so, it is good to be reminded of those who are trying to live on $2 a day.

World Bank issues hunger warning after droughts in US and Europe

Damage to crop harvests from exceptionally dry weather this year raises sharply the Bank's food price index
Larry Elliott, Thursday 30 August 2012

The World Bank issued a global hunger warning last night after severe droughts in the US and eastern Europe sent food prices to a record high.
Damage to crop harvests from exceptionally dry weather this year raised sharply the Bank's food price index taking it above its peak in early 2011.

The Washington-based bank blamed the drought in the US for the 25% price rise of maize and 17% price rise in soya beans last month, adding that a dry summer in Russia, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan lay behind the 25% jump in the cost of wheat.

"Food prices rose again sharply threatening the health and well-being of millions of people," said World Bank group president, Jim Yong Kim. "Africa and the Middle East are particularly vulnerable, but so are people in other countries where the prices of grains have gone up abruptly."

The bank said food prices overall rose by 10% between June and July to leave them 6% up on a year earlier. "We cannot allow these historic price hikes to turn into a lifetime of perils as families take their children out of school and eat less nutritious food to compensate for the high prices," said Kim. "Countries must strengthen their targeted programs to ease the pressure on the most vulnerable population, and implement the right policies." more 
We get more evidence that this is the new normal—this time from the folks at Lawrence Livermore.

Extreme US summer temperatures occuring more frequently

Extreme summer temperatures are already occurring more frequently in the United States, and could become normal by mid-century, according researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

A recent analysis of observations and results obtained by climate models showed that previously rare high summertime (June, July and August) temperatures are already occurring more frequently in some regions of the 48 contiguous United States.

The report suggests that extreme high temperatures could become the norm by midcentury if the world continues on a business as usual schedule of emitting greenhouse gases. Phil Duffy, lead author of the report, said:

The observed increase in the frequency of previously rare summertime-average temperatures is more consistent with the consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations than with the effects of natural climate variability. It is extremely unlikely that the observed increase has happened through chance alone.

The geographical patterns of increases in extreme summer temperatures that appear in observations are consistent with those that are seen in climate model simulations of the 20th century, Duffy said.

According to the report, climate models project that previously rare summer temperatures will occur in well more than 50 percent of summers by mid-century throughout the lower 48 states. Duffy said:

The South, Southwest and Northeast are projected to experience the largest increases in the frequency of unusually hot summers. The strong increase in extremes in the Southwest and Northeast are explained by strong historical and projected warming there. This result is based upon assuming a commonly used scenario for future emissions of carbon dioxide, the main driver of human-caused climate change.

What was historically a one in 20-year occurrence will occur with at least a 70 percent chance every year. This work shows an example of how climate change can affect weather extremes, as well as averages.

Bottom line: According to researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, extreme summer temperatures are already occurring more frequently in the United States, and could become normal by mid-century. more

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