The weather. More than half the United States is in a drought right now. What had looked like a world record corn crop is now vanishing before our eyes; across the Plains, many farmers are plowing under what little they have left—not enough has been growing to pay for the cost of harvesting. US soybean crops are failing too—on foreign exchanges, the price of soy is nearing record highs.
The biggest reason for this is drought; when drought is accompanied by drastic temperatures, as it has been, things get worse. For many of our typical crop plants, when the mercury climbs, photosynthesis can slow and even stop. That means the plant is dying.
It’s not just grain, although grain is the scariest part of this. In the Upper Midwest, the weirdly warm early spring, followed by crash freezes, has ravaged fruit crops—apples, peaches, cherries, grapes. Ninety percent of Michigan’s apple crop failed. Most of its cherry crop failed. Heat and drought are rampaging across the state—a few days ago, the USDA offered disaster aid to farmers in 82 of Michigan’s 83 counties.
And it’s not just in the US. From Russia to Brazil, India, Argentina and China, mean weather is hitting crops in all the food-producing giants. In fact, one reason the US planted a record number of acres in corn this year was to make up for the decline in this year’s Argentine corn and soybean crops, because of drought.
Even if none of these calamities had struck—no drought, no record highs—and all of these crops had succeeded, higher costs of other commodities would still be bumping up food prices. But scarce crops mean higher costs all around for food. Pricier corn means higher costs for animal feed, and therefore higher prices for meat, chicken, even eggs. When corn gets too pricey, growers switch to wheat to feed their animals. In fact, wheat prices are already inching up as the markets place their bets.
Yes, there are crops that have not failed, and thanks to our food distribution system, we in North America will be able to get them. But there will be less food in the world, and in vying for it our wallets will be emptier. And there is also the breadbasket factor: all the people who depend on American-grown grains. We are the world’s biggest supplier of wheat and corn—sales of US grains really do feed the world. Crop failure in the US corn and wheat belts, when crops are stressing in the other food growing nations, means famine elsewhere. When winter comes and you are paying more at the checkout, and reading about volatile food costs and food riots in Africa or the Middle East, and perhaps seeing governments tumble, this year’s desperate weather will be a big reason why.