Drought Hits U.S. Midwest Hard

Christos Liardakis, Assistant Opinions Editor


Drought Map

This summer, the United States experienced one of the worst droughts in history since the dustbowl. Farms went weeks on end without a drop of rain, particularly in the Midwest and, combined with high temperatures, resulted in a significant drop in harvest-ready plants. The drought affected numerous parts of the nation’s industrial sector as well as countries outside of the U.S. The United States has ample agriculture, if one part of the U.S. is experiencing drought and crop loss problems, then the whole food industry suffers as a result. While droughts are not uncommon, this summer the drought conditions were felt all over the United States, leaving almost all farms affected. As the image shows, the majority of the United States experienced at least an abnormal dryness level. The Midwest and Southwestern parts of the United States were particularly hard-hit, experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions.

The drought conditions were persistent and occurred during the maturing and harvesting periods of the country’s most important crops- corn. The USDA estimated the drought damaged crops enough to lower corn production to by 13 percent when compared to 2011 crop numbers. Corn and its by-products, is used for wheat in food, fertilizer, ethanol, beverages, animal feed and biodegradable plastics. Director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative at the University of Iowa and Agricultural Economist Kevin Kimle explained that “corn matures by about Labor Day, but what happens in dry conditions is it shuts down early if it doesn’t get any moisture. When the cost of a base ingredient like corn goes up, it fundamentally affects everything.”

The EPA mandates that 13.6 billion gallons of bio-fuels such as ethanol to be produced. At 26 pounds of corn per gallon of ethanol, the amount of corn necessary to meet the EPA’s mandate of could exceed 40 percent of the total corn crop for 2012. The number of beef and dairy cattle also reached 90.8 million head according to the USDA. Cattle typically eat 8 pounds of supplemental feed, mainly corn, in addition to 20 pounds of hay per day. The drought will result in higher prices for both corn and hay up, and potentially force ranchers to cut the amount of feed, the resulting smaller animals. The overall scarcity of feed and beef will negatively affect the consumer beef and dairy market, bringing eventual price increases.

Farmers are at a slight advantage during the drought, being covered by federal programs and crop insurance. The livestock industry (beef, poultry and pork) was affected by the drought and subsequent higher feed prices and is not typically covered by insurance. Ranchers face being unable to feed their livestock for the coming winter, and may be forced to thin out herds, creating an excess of meats on the market and lowering prices. Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center acknowledges that this may seem like the one good thing to come out of everything, but he also warned that these tough decisions “create a glut of meat and force prices to go down in the short term,” Fuchs says. “Once that glut is gone, prices spike from lack of supply, and it will take several calving seasons to build that supply up again.”

The United States will not be the only country affected. Every year, the U.S. ships thousands of tons of grains as foreign aid to impoverished third world countries. These countries include Afghanistan, India, Congo, Nepal, and many more. The full list of countries that rely on U.S. food aid can be found at http://foodaid.org/food-aid-programs/food-for-peace/. While the U.S. has pledged not to decrease foreign aid foodstuffs, the increase of prices could have a devastating effect on countries with food stability issues that rely on purchasing grain from overseas.