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No water, no crops: how this year’s North American drought will impact you

I can’t figure out why Mark Twain is considered such a smarty pants for noticing that people always talk about the weather but never do anything about it.

If people talk about the weather – this summer’s drought, and its likely impact on runaway food prices and forest fires – that’s deep folk wisdom recognizing how completely Nature determines our life prospects, not matter what level of air conditioning is available.

If people don’t do anything about the weather, it may be because they’re wise enough to know the most decisive things in our lives are beyond our personal control.

But if people don’t do anything because they think government has the problem in hand, then Mark Twain’s weather joke needs some extra helpings of ridicule.  

It’s almost impossible to think of a crisis of the scope of this year’s worldwide drought, which arises from such predictable factors, yet has been subject to so little oversight or preparation by public authorities. Government agencies charged with food and food security are awash in ignorance that it took a heat and drought wave to bring to our attention. The level of government screw-up on this file is every bit as big as the screw-up in banking regs that led to the ongoing recession since the banking collapse of 2008.

Let me count the mistakes.

No government agencies or ministries in North America integrate responsibility for food and water, even though – you heard it here first – food is quite hard to grow without water. Maybe it’s time someone started to think about food and water policy together, especially with regard to corn, which cannot be pollinated unless there is moisture during an extremely brief ‘breeding season’ of two weeks – not exactly a candidate for today’s chaotic climate.

Today’s global food system relies on about 10 crops (from among literally thousands) for about 80 per cent of calories. The five top sellers – corn, wheat, rice, sugar and potato – are notable water guzzlers, as well as big-time degraders of water as a result of fertilizer and pollution run-off.

Governments, almost all of which have food departments, have allowed all food-security eggs to be put in a few baskets without any concern about overspecialization, despite universal warnings from scientists that we are entering an era of climate instability. Indeed, in the Global South, Northern government aid programmes have encouraged water-intensive ‘modernization’ (aka dams) and the marginalization of traditional crops such as nutrient-rich quinoa and millet as well as drought-resistant livestock.

Since the 1990s, a once-standard policy of most countries since ancient times – maintaining of reserves from good years as a hedge against famine in bad years – has disappeared, making all people reliant on this year’s weather – something so stupid it has never been done before.

Corn – once the sacred crop of the Mayan and other indigenous peoples of the Americas but since bred to become the sacred crop of the junk food industry – is treated as most-favoured crop throughout North America, as indicated by the irrational subsidies to support corn ethanol for motor fuel, despite the fact that corn requires as much fossil fuel inputs on the farm as corn fuel displaces from the highway.

Corn producers enjoy this and other party favours because corn provides feedstock for cheap sweetener in pop and processed foods and cheap and fast feed for livestock, few of which evolved to eat nutrient-free corn. Corn is also a favourite of the agribusiness complex, because corn producers have to buy so much fertilizer and pesticides, and so many tractors and genetically engineered seeds. A subsidy to corn is a subsidy to junk food and a flow-through laundering scheme for agribusiness, which ends up with most of the subsidies.   

Here comes the corn shock

Since the 1990s (if you’re wondering why then, that coincides with the rise of a new world order, the World Trade Organization and large-scale deregulation of corporate responsibility), speculation on an essential requirement of food has been legalized and even encouraged by government-initiated low interest rates that drive investment monies into ever-riskier ventures.

As a result of loose money coupled with deregulation, financial houses and hedge funds  speculate on food commodity prices subject (except in the US) to fewer limitations than products traded in city-based stock exchanges. As a consequence, price volatility has shot up since the 1990s, and shot up this year far beyond expected declines in corn would suggest. The traded price of a bushel of corn shot from about five dollars in (the Northern) spring to about eight dollars in July.

City governments are not blameless in this, and need to be brought up to snuff. With few exceptions, government agencies refuse to increase purchasing of local and sustainable foods. As University of Guelph food policy expert Evan Fraser argues, boosting local and regional production creates ‘buffer zones’ of food production around cities, protecting them from weather and other sources of turmoil that an overly specialized ( both crop-wise and geography-wise) global food system has become.

We will see how much money shoppers save from favouring cheap global foodstuffs when the grocery bills come in as the ‘corn shock’ does to food prices what the oil shock of the 1970s did. The system that gave us obesity and low prices is about to narrow its offerings.

The fumbles in government policy are a warning to keep a close eye on what governments do to protect farmers, consumers and the environment now that the spotlight is on them. A lot of people are doing a rain dance for government money to drop on them, and the rain needs to fall on the right places.

Certainly, there’s no reason to offer more support beyond conventional crop insurance to corn growers who plan to stick with that crop in future. Assistance to corn farmers should be linked to programmes that help them dry out from corn addiction and move into crops that support public health and the environment.

Nor is there reason to subsidize consumers to offset rising costs of corn-based (ie unhealthy) foods; such subsidies would mainly flow to speculators who drove prices up.

Nor is there a reason to starve funding for measures that will reduce global warming (which should henceforth be known as global drying) and protect the climate of the future from worsening climate chaos.

The fundamentals are wrong here, not just the climate. We need to focus on ending the drought on responsible public food policy.

Wayne Roberts is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

Photo (top) Corn Field by Alternative Heat under a CC Licence

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