Drought Now Covers More Than 50% of the Country. Why It Will Make Food More Expensive
They call drought the sl0w-motion disaster, and for good reason. While earthquakes and volcanoes strike in a moment, and hurricanes unfold over a few days, a drought is simply a day without rain that becomes two days without rain…and then a week…and then a month and then longer. The damage worsens by the hour, but it can take weeks or even months before the effects of drought become visible in cracked soil, stunted crops and dried up lakes. Even then, there’s none of the explosive drama that marks other natural disasters. Instead, there are days of sun and heat, a steady drying of the landscape, as if the all the water in the air and the soil were simply being sucked away.
So while the drought of 2012 may not have generated the iconic images of Hurricane Katrina or Haiti earthquake, remember that was is happening right now to the heartland of the U.S. truly is historic. The National Climatic Data Center reports that 55% of the country is now in moderate to extreme drought, making this the biggest dry spell since 1956, and it already rivals some years from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The only thing that’s kept this drought from potentially becoming worse than the 1930s is that it is still relatively young—a “flash drought,” in the words of Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman—a fact that only underlines how intense the dry weather has been.
It’s been bad enough to potentially ruin much of the Midwest’s corn and soybean crop, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reporting this week that only 31% of the corn crop can be rated as good or excellent, down 9 percentage points from last week. As one scientist told the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert this week, trying to farm in the caked-dry soil of usually fertile states like Indiana or Illinois is like “farming in Hell.”
And that’s where the more than 99% of Americans who aren’t farmers will begin to feel the impact of this drought. Corn is already above $7 a bushel, and soybeans—another major staple crop used for animal feed and fuel—aren’t far behind. So you might expect the corn on the cob at the local supermarket might get a little pricier. But of course the effects go far beyond the simple cost of an ear. Corn is the base of the American food pyramid, used in everything from meat—corn is a staple grain for chickens and cattle—to cereal to even Gatorade and Ring Dings. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan concisely quotes a food researcher who notes that Americans “look like corn chips on legs.”