Corn sex is complicated. As Michael Pollan observes in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the whole affair is so freakishly difficult it’s hard to imagine how it ever evolved in the first place. Corn’s female organs are sheathed in a sort of vegetable chastity belt—surrounded by a tough, virtually impenetrable husk. The only way in is by means of a silk thread that each flower extends, Rapunzel-like, through a small opening. For fertilization to take place, a grain of pollen must land on the tip of the silk, then shimmy its way six to eight inches through a microscopic tube, a journey that requires several hours. The result of a successfully completed passage is a single kernel. When everything is going well, the process is repeated something like eight hundred times per ear, or roughly eighty thousand times per bushel.
It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well.
Heat wave and Drought Forcing Ranchers to Sell Cattle Early
"Ranchers say they are reducing their herds and selling their cattle months ahead of schedule to avoid the mounting losses of a drought that now stretches across a record-breaking 1,016 American counties. Irrigation ponds are shriveling to scummy puddles. Their pastures are brown and barren. And they say the prices of hay and other feed are soaring beyond their reach.
“If we’re running out of grass and we’re not growing enough feed crops to feed them the other six months of the year, what do you do?” asked R. Scott Barrows, director of Kansas State University’s Golden Prairie District extension office. “You liquidate.””
Agricultural analyst from JP Morgan states the US will have to turn to importing food from Brazil, possibly Russia. My jaw dropped when she hinted that energy policy is partly to blame, where 40% of corn goes to ethanol production for petrol (though, my understanding is that corn grown for ethanol is not for human consumption. Anyone?).
China's Rising Wages Propel U.S. Prices
Disaster Declared in 26 States as Drought Sears U.S.
"More than 1,000 counties in 26 states are being named natural-disaster areas, the biggest such declaration ever by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as drought grips the Midwest”
-by one of my journo colleagues, Shai Oster from the WSJ.
“ In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family’s dinner table. Welcome to the new food economics of 2011: Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we’ve seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who are barely hanging on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely. This can contribute — and it has — to revolutions and upheaval. ”
— The New Geopolitics of Food
)These are serious impacts that could lead to famine, even war. I’m old enough to remember the Ethiopian famine, and it was horrifying.
Famine causes internal conflict and civil war, and sometimes the UN and US have to intervene. Rising prices, I predict, will challenge the next US president’s willingness to mettle. Part of the Reagan Doctrine with respect to Ethiopia’s crisis, if I recall, was to balance humanitarian aid without engaging in a full frontal war with Mengistu’s
brutal government (who was supported by the Soviets). A famine in Somalia
or god forbid Yemen
is quite possible
. I’ve been following climate impacts on food for a while. Here are some of my posts here
. And a particularly good one on the cause of food prices rising, here