Over the last two months, the price of corn has been climbing. On July 19, it exceeded $8 per bushel for the first time, taking the world into a new food price terrain. With heat and drought still smothering the Corn Belt, we may well see more all-time highs in coming weeks as the extent of crop damage becomes clearer.
This is not the way it was supposed to be. On June 12th, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projected the U.S. corn harvest would hit a record 376 million tons. Just one month later, drought conditions forced the USDA to revise its projections downward by 47 million tons. By harvest time the actual decline may be closer to 30 percent, or roughly 100 million tons -- double the USDA estimated drop.
Because the USDA is overestimating the harvest, it is underestimating the food price rise in the months ahead. Even as corn prices are setting all-time highs, so too are soybean prices, putting still more upward pressure on food prices.
There are several reasons for the large reduction in the harvest estimate. One is record high temperatures. Nationwide, the first half of this year was the hottest on record. In St. Louis, Missouri, which is in the southern part of the U.S. Corn Belt, in late June and early July there were 10 consecutive days with temperatures of 100-108 degrees.
By the end of July, 63 percent of the nation suffered from the lack of rain, making it the most extensive drought in half a century.
When the thermometer rises above the norm, plants suffer. As a rule, as temperatures rise to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, photosynthesis increases. From 68 to 95 degrees it remains steady. Beyond this it declines fast. At 104 degrees, photosynthesis ceases entirely. At such elevated temperatures, plants go into thermal shock.
Intense heat also disrupts pollination. Corn is particularly vulnerable because of its complex pollination system. The tassel at the top of a corn plant releases pollen, which must fall on each strand of silk coming out of the ear of corn and travel to the kernel site, where fertilization occurs. If it is too hot, the silk will turn brown and dry out, leaving the pollen with no chance of reaching its destination.
The current rise in corn prices comes at a time when grain prices are already elevated. This will almost certainly translate into spreading food unrest.
We are looking at a future of rising food prices driven by rising temperatures. Heat waves and droughts like that of 2012 in the United States are projected to become more frequent as the planet heats up. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping gas, have increased 20 percent since 1970 and are continuing to rise.
The food instability brought about by climate change will be one of the topics discussed by the more than 1,500 people attending EcoSummit 2012 starting September 30th in Columbus, Ohio. This will be the fourth EcoSummit ever held and the first to be held in the United States.
This will not be your typical environmental conference. There won't be any posturing by politicians, no jockeying for a conference communiqué that only elevates the blood pressure of all involved.
No, this meeting is about solutions.
This will be a gathering of great minds from academia, the policy arena and non-governmental organizations that are searching for ways to stabilize our ecological support systems and ensure that our children and grandchildren will enjoy a healthy planet. Conference attendees, for example, will be looking at ways to restore peat bogs that serve as natural magnets capable of drawing carbon from the atmosphere. Wetlands restoration, soil conservation, and how best to ensure a sustainable supply of raw materials will be at the center of the discussions.
In generations past, when there was an extreme weather event such as a monsoon failure in India, a severe drought in Russia, or an intense heat wave in the U.S. Corn Belt, we knew that things would shortly return to normal. But today there is no "normal" to return to. The earth's climate is now in a constant state of flux.
With temperatures rising and with droughts expanding and intensifying, it is becoming ever more difficult to ensure future food security. Climate change is now reducing crop prospects. Restoring an acceptable balance between food supply and demand may now depend more on new energy and population policies than on any agricultural policy we can conceive.
Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute and author of 'Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity,' due to be published in October 2012. He will be discussing food security issues when he addresses EcoSummit 2012.