Where Has All the Water Gone?

3 August 2012


By Christine Batten, CFJC Policy and Outreach Intern

Has your area been hit by the drought? More than likely, it has. As of Wednesday evening, half of the counties in the US have been considered “disaster areas” due to the perpetual drought. Illinois is suffering immensely; three-fourths of corn and over half of soy acreage are fairing poor to very poor. Last year in Iowa, the leading producer of corn and soybeans in the US, 80% of corn crops were considered in “good condition” by the USDA; this year, only 36% are comparable, and about 50% is considered “poor.” Half of the US corn acreage is suffering. Almost two-thirds of the country is experiencing some level of drought.

So what does this all mean for consumers? This commodity crop scarcity is affecting our food and fuel system, and in turn many jobs. Ethanol—a biofuel—is made from corn, as well as much of the food in our food system, which relies on corn and the other commodity crops (like soybeans) to feed livestock and to be used as additives in nearly every packaged food. The drought is fueling a fight between ethanol plants and livestock producers, both of which need corn to keep their businesses going. In the Midwest region, many ethanol plants have already closed. Jobs in the area are hurting, too. In one month (June to July) the employment index declined about 10%. When we build a system based on a select few crops, the entire structure will feel the effects. Food and fuel prices are increasing; the USDA says consumers can expect a 3 to 4 percent increase in food costs by 2013. Primarily, this refers to a cost increase for meat, dairy, and eggs, all substantially made of corn due to livestock feed.

Why are we in a drought, anyway? Ag. Sec Tom Vilsack discussed the damaging effects of the drought during a press briefing on July 18th. However, despite his sense of urgency surrounding this issue, he shied away from assigning a cause to the crisis. When asked about the drought’s relationship to climate change, he would not make any definitive remarks. Why? Maybe because people aren’t prepared, still, to cope with the fact that we need to take more drastic measures to counteract the problems of human-induced climate change—measures that go beyond a dance of capital interests, which is exactly what was proposed one week ago. Last Friday, Republicans wanted to disregard the current 2012 draft of the farm bill and fast-track an extension of the 2008 bill. That’s right: the government tried to use the drought conditions as reason to supersede the standard bill reauthorization process and advance current legislation that is more politically favorable. The Ag. Committee’s draft of the bill was continually delayed on coming to a floor vote when Republicans proposed that the bill be forgotten altogether—at least for a year—which would obliterate politically unpopular programs, like ones supporting socially disadvantaged farmers and, ironically, conservation provisions. The only parts of the farm bill that concern drought conditions are livestock disaster and tree assistance provisions, which could easily be passed as standalone legislation in addition to passing the new farm bill. Luckily, not many people agreed with this proposed extension, and the House GOP leaders opposed it on Tuesday.

Clearly, this drought is serious. So when will it end? Well, we may need to prepare for the worst, as drought conditions are expected to become the new average, especially for those of us in the western US. 10 researchers in Nature Geoscience reported that the drought—and the potential upcoming megadrought over the next century—has been driven by human-induced global warming. These drastic changes in climate have caused increased carbon dioxide emission (a greenhouse gas), which by extension furthers global warming, thus furthering climate change, and so on. These new heat spells are consequently expected to precede more extreme precipitation patterns, making flooding more commonplace as well. So be prepared for more long-term extreme weather conditions.

To combat climate change-induced devastation, our efforts as people need a wider focus. We cannot simply “adapt”— as ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson seems to believe—to continual drastic changes in our environment. We must work toward viable, long lasting solutions and not simply mitigate a quick fix for the sake of immediacy.

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CFJC promotes the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice. Through advocacy, organizing and education, we collaborate with community-based efforts to create a sustainable food supply. We envision a food system in which all activities, from farm to table, are equitable, healthful, regenerative and community-driven.

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