Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Screw the math, the scorched farmland is terrifying

Connecting the dots between climate change and your groceries



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According to the July 27 Guardian, "The worst drought in a generation is hitting farmers across America's corn belt far harder than government projections and forcing them to a heart-breaking decision: harvest what's left of their shrivelled corn or abandon their entire crop."

Shrivelled or not, corn is a foundation of our food supply. Dairy cows, beef cattle, chickens all eat corn and right now a lot of American farmers who raise livestock are killing them because they can't afford the high feed prices. (It takes, on average, seven kilograms of grain to generate one kilogram of beef.)

Even our own little chicken supplier just sent out an apologetic note over her higher prices. Last week grain feed went up another $37 a ton after a $22 increase a month ago. That doubles her chicken feed price from six years ago. Bet your wages haven't doubled in six years.

Corn is also the basis for cornstarch, corn oil, and a lot of the sugars that make their way into processed food in the form of glucose and high fructose corn syrup. Many of these foods are the most affordable calories for people with low incomes.

While the U.S. harvest is still expected to be relatively good due to the record amount of corn planted — the most in 75 years — the shortfall due to the drought along with stock market speculation on corn futures will drive up prices. Soybeans, which are increasingly sourced when corn supplies run amok, will be affected as well.

Add to the mix drought conditions in South America, especially in Brazil where soybeans are grown, along with flash floods in Russia, which are threatening this year's wheat harvest — again.

Two things make the perspective keener. Rice, wheat and corn make up two-thirds of the world's food consumption. Plus we've all seen in 2008 and again in 2010 the social and political upheavals that arise when food shortages and rising prices press those who can least afford it. That includes the Arab spring, which started with bread riots.

As if echoing McKibben's piece, another interesting bit of math came out this week. James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and author of Storms of My Grandchildren, another well-thumbed favourite on my shelves, has done statistical analysis confirming that these searing droughts and other intense weather patterns aren't random or normal. (According to the reinsurance company, Munich Re, the U.S. alone experienced 90 natural disasters in the first six months of 2012 that amounted to $14.6 billion in economic losses.) They can't be anything other than results of human-caused climate change.

All this reminds me of more stats that came up when I was at the World Conference for Science Journalists in London three summers ago. A University of Cambridge scientist doing climate research coolly and dispassionately laid out two facts that still ring in my ears.