Reporting on Corn Shortage Does Our Future a Disservice by Overlooking Climate Change Link

Saturday, 25 August 2012 00:00 By Ravi Katari, Truthout | Op-Ed
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The January 2009 issue of the prestigious journal Science included an article entitled "Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat."  Using 23 global climate models, the investigators calculated a 90 percent probability that the growing season temperatures by the end of the 21st century will exceed the most extreme seasonal temperatures on record from 1900 to 2006. That is to say, in less than a century, the average summer temperature will most likely exceed the hottest summer we've ever experienced. The study was framed within the context of the 2007 global food crisis and used historical examples to emphasize the deleterious consequences of extreme seasonal heat on global food markets. It made no explicit reference to anthropogenic warming, but ominously concluded with, "Ignoring climate projections at this stage will only result in the worst form of triage."

Yet it continues. Big news this week highlights the sharp decrease in US corn production due to the worst drought in 50 years. Corn output has particularly broad implications given its uses in ethanol production and livestock feed. Furthermore, the United States is the world's leader in corn production, and as such, the toll will be felt globally.

Lower corn production translates to higher prices for US fuel companies, which are required to ensure that 9 percent of their gasoline pools come from ethanol under the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) implemented under Bush II.  This ultimately comes out to the biofuel conversion of 40 percent of the domestic corn crop. The pressure of rising corn costs is also felt by meat/poultry companies such as Tyson, and will translate to higher prices for livestock-based products such as cheese and milk.

The volatility of the global food market was underlined by the 2007 food crisis, which contributed to the social unrest behind the Arab Spring. As such, there has been growing fear of another food crisis in light of these drought-related harvest shortcomings. Lisa Jackson, current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been urged by a bipartisan group of senators to ease the restrictions, which were designed to promote the domestic biofuel market, on farmers and oil refiners. The argument is that unless the US government acts swiftly and accordingly to stabilize prices, volatile food prices will translate to suffering in the general population.

Given the dire implications of climate-related food shortages and subsequent geopolitical instability, one would imagine that now would be a good time to discuss anthropogenic global warming and steps that could be taken in order to prevent this year's hottest days from becoming the norm in 50 years, as suggested by the above-mentioned study.

However, this idea is discarded as mere platitude. The Washington Post recently reported, "Corn production in the U.S., the world's largest grower and exporter, will drop 13% to a six-year low after the hottest July since 1936 damaged Midwest fields," but then totally drops the climate connection. This negligence is practiced across the board. The recent Reuters release states, "Corn prices have surged more than 60 percent in the past two months as the United States reels from the extreme weather, while global soy supplies are also tight after drought in South America." 

Current discussion makes it seem as if this "extreme weather" were an amusing anomaly to be solved by market manipulations and financial precision. (For another example, see a statement released by the Heritage Foundation.) The point is that it's pretty terrible that we can sit here and discuss food crises and global instability with straight faces without acknowledging the elephant in the room. Climate-oriented strategies cannot possibly solve the problem in the short-term, but it is critical that they be addressed when discussing the long-term. Failure to do so spells out true human catastrophe, especially when the world population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.

Jeremy Grantham recently wrote in the Financial Times that due to vested interests and short-sightedness, the "world is likely to act too slowly to conserve resources, improve farming technologies, and discourage meat eating and waste" and that "our behavior, which unnecessarily pushes up prices, will inadvertently cause malnutrition and outright starvation in poor countries." Every agribusiness and fuel company corporate executive can shout about the human suffering that would occur if their costs rise too quickly, but it's difficult not to feel embarrassed when Grantham points out that the caloric content of a single sport-utility gas tank of corn-based ethanol would sustain one Egyptian farmer for a whole year.

Executive and legislative politicians have elections to think about. Corporate leaders have profit obligations to shareholders. For good professional reasons, they simply cannot afford to heed the long-term. The rest of us have gas tanks to fill.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Ravi Katari

Ravi Katari graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in biomedical engineering. He worked as a Medicaid specialist at a health law firm in Washington, DC, before moving to North Carolina to study medicine at Wake Forest University. His work has appeared in Common Dreams and CounterPunch and is also published on his blog.

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