TOPICS > World

Facing Drought, Farmers’ Crops Taking Heat

July 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
More than half of the country suffered drought in June, and farmers and their crops are taking a hard hit. David Beckmann of Bread for the World and Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center discuss how disappointing corn yields have larger economic consequences for the world's hungriest people.

GWEN IFILL: Dry, hot weather is shriveling crops in the heart of America’s Farm Belt and squeezing food prices here and around the world.

Ray Suarez has our story.

MAN: The leaves aren’t regrowing as quickly. They’re getting burned.

RAY SUAREZ: That lament at a community kitchen in Indianapolis is being heard across much of the nation this summer, amid the most extensive drought in decades.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, more than half of the Lower 48 states, seen here in yellow, orange and maroon, were in moderate to extreme drought in June. The Rockies, Central Plains and Ohio Valley were hardest-hit.

From March to June, those three regions received the least precipitation in the U.S. To make matters worse, the last 12 months were the hottest since record-keeping began in 1895. If it goes on much longer, the drought could begin to rival the Dust Bowl of the ’30s or the droughts of the ’50s.

That was the last time so much of the country was so dry.

MAN: If we don’t get rain in the next five to 10 days, there probably won’t be anything here to harvest.

RAY SUAREZ: Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is already in poor condition. And the projected harvest is steadily falling. That means less feed for livestock and, for consumers, rising prices for produce, meat and other products that rely heavily on corn.

And we get two perspectives.

Brian Fuchs is a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. And David Beckmann is winner of the World Food Prize and president of Bread for the World, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Christian organization working to end hunger.

Brian Fuchs, this growing season started with a lot of high hopes, the most extensive plantings in history and forecasts of a great crop. Did things abruptly get worse?

BRIAN FUCHS, National Drought Mitigation Center: Well, we started the year off with a good planting season, with great conditions to get the crop into the ground.

And from that point on, things really became dry and the temperatures stayed elevated. So, with a great kickoff, things rapidly declined from there to the point where we are today, where we’re seeing a great, expansive drought across the entire country, including the Grain Belt.

RAY SUAREZ: The corn is pollinating right now. It’s a minor miracle even when the weather isn’t bad. Are the plants too stressed now by the drought to even pull it off?

BRIAN FUCHS: Along with the dry conditions, we are seeing temperatures that have been quite warm as well. So, put those two together, and you do add a lot of stress to the crop, as it is in that crucial pollination period where the yield is being set.

So putting those two together in the Grain Belt, we are seeing a lot of the crop being stressed, and we are hearing of declines to the crop as we have moved forward over the last few weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: David Beckmann, how does bad weather percolate through the food industry and change the prices we see at the checkout counter?

DAVID BECKMANN, Bread for the World: I think in this country, it will have some impact probably next year, but actually modest impact, because a lot of what we buy in the grocery store is packaging, marketing, transportation, manufacturing.

So the price of grain really isn’t going to affect dramatically our grocery prices. There will be some change. The big impact is actually among the poorest people in the world, because poor people in the developing countries typically spend two-thirds of all of their income on one grain. So, it’s rice, maybe two plates of rice a day or two plates of some sort of corn dish a day or wheat.

It’s usually one grain, and that’s two-thirds of their total income. So over the last month, the global price of grains has gone up 25 percent. If that gets translated into a 25 percent increase in what that local person can buy for corn, it means increased hunger.

In 2008, when prices doubled in a year, 200 million people were driven into hunger around the world. So that’s — to my mind — I hate what’s happening to farmers and a lot of people whose lives are being disrupted in this country. But the life-and-death impact that I’m worried about is what this will mean for hungry people around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Fuchs, looking at the United States, do people realize how much of their food is really affected by those two key commodities, soy and corn? Does it has a sort of tumbling dominoes effect in the oils, in the sweeteners, in the other ingredients that make up foods that we don’t even associate with grain?

BRIAN FUCHS: Well, I think it takes an event like this current drought situation to really shed some light to the consumer of where their food comes from and that trickle-down of not only where the grains are being fed to different animals such as poultry and beef around the country, but also what that means as far as marketing goes and what areas of the country are being impacted.

The more knowledge that consumers can gain and maybe they can understand a little bit more of where the food products are coming from, they will understand that when the drought is impacting the Corn Belt, what it actually means to them as far as consumers go.

RAY SUAREZ: An unusually high number of farmers, Brian, are selling their livestock. Is it because they’re finding it too expensive to feed them and water them?

BRIAN FUCHS: What we have seen this year was a carryover of some of the drought conditions that were hitting the Southern Plains last year.

In Texas and Oklahoma, many of the cattle ranchers down there needed forage. And so a lot of hay was shipped to the Southern U.S. last year.

And now, in some of those areas that delivered hay and forage last year, they’re seeing drought this year. And the market on that hay and forge for those cattle producers is getting to the point where some are culling their herds and selling animals off, because it becomes cost-prohibitive to maintain those herds at the current stocking rates because of the drought.

RAY SUAREZ: David Beckmann, is there any give in the world food system than there used to be? Some food experts are referring to a post-surplus world, where the number of mouths more closely matches the amount of food we’re making.

Does this kind of event, this unusual drought, worst in 56 years, put more people in risk than we even realize?

DAVID BECKMANN: The system has changed in that world’s population is growing wonderfully. A lot of people are getting out of poverty around the world. And so they are eating more food.


And there’s going to be a growing demand for food, already is, all over the world. So that change has taken place. I think one thing that we’re doing right as a world is investing in agriculture in poor countries around the world, helping poor farmer produce more, take advantage of higher prices to make a living and also meet local needs.

That’s something that the U.S. has actually led over the last three or four years, and something that ought to continue. In a certain way, it’s given us more give in the system. When prices jumped in 2008, it was a dramatic setback for lots of people. Three or four years of investment by Bangladesh, and Malawi and Tanzania in their own agriculture and nutrition assistance for their own people I think makes us less vulnerable this time around than we were in 2008.

RAY SUAREZ: And, quickly, Brian, before we go, if it starts to rain in some of the most heavily affected places, is it too late for some crops or will some of the plants bounce back? Will you get a better yield?

BRIAN FUCHS: You know, as the weeks go forward, it’s getting harder to reverse the impact of the crops as they sit today.

There is still some hope for the soybean crop that is out there, that it typically sets its yield a little bit later in the summer. But much of the damage to the corn crop has been done. And we’re really going to start seeing the impact to the yield as the adjusters go out into the fields and actually see what the yield estimations will be for the harvest season.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Fuchs, David Beckmann, gentleman, thank you both.


BRIAN FUCHS: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Online, you can find maps of major droughts of years past, including the Dust Bowl, and view stories from our Food for 9 Billion series exploring the challenges of feeding the world’s population.