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Sweltering Heat Kills U.S. Corn, Blights Economic Hopes

“Knee high by the Fourth of July” is what New England farmers want their corn crop to be. In the Middle West this year the corn is wilting and drying out instead of growing this month. The heat sweeping across America this summer is stunting or killing the crops of the world’s most important corn-producing region. NYT:

Across a wide stretch of the Midwest, sweltering temperatures and a lack of rain are threatening what had been expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.

Already, some farmers in Illinois and Missouri have given up on parched and stunted fields, mowing them over. National experts say parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions. And in at least nine states, conditions in one-fifth to one-half of cornfields have been deemed poor or very poor, federal authorities reported this week, a notable shift from the high expectations of just a month ago.

The only thing farmers can do is hope and wait, and look to the horizon for clouds. Some farmland, like in Minnesota and western Iowa, has seen milder weather. But if it continues, the midwest’s hot, hot weather—over 110 degrees Fahrenheit in some places—could turn what was going to be the biggest corn harvest on record into a major disappointment.

A bad harvest could affect the presidential election; the Farm Belt states have been among the best performers during the economic recession. President Obama wants Iowa farmers in particular to be in a good mood when they troop to the polls; we shall see.

This is bad news for more than just U.S. farmers, consumers and politicians. For too many people around the world today, the price of food is the single biggest factor determining their standard of living.  Middle Eastern countries in particular are vulnerable to price shocks in the world food supply. After three months of declines, world food prices are already rising on the news of the Midwest heat wave and what it’s doing to the American harvest.


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  • Mark Mazer

    In the upper southeast region our corn crop is in excellent shape.

  • Felipe Pait

    One fears it is also bad news for the people who have made a living out of denying, against overwhelming scientific evidence, that the climate, it is a-changing.

    Unfortunately, the fears are likely to prove true, and Schadenfreude over the bad luck of the science deniers will be scant consolation.

  • Walter Sobchak

    D you suppose that we could do something intelligent like suspending bio-fuel production while the emergency is on?

    Nah. Just Kidding.

  • Susan

    There is no denying, today’s climate is like the climate during the Dust Bowl years of Great Depression which occurred some 80 years ago.

    Actually it is a scientifically proven fact that the climate has been a-changin for the last gazillion years.

    The irony; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • MarqueG

    2. Yes, that Schadenfreude would surely be good wholesome fun. But IIRC, agricultural societies have always been subjected to the uncertainty of irregular seasonal weather, long before the Chevy Suburban was even the twinkle in an automotive engineer’s eye. Crops are always failing somewhere due to unseasonable conditions, as they always have and always will.

    Perhaps #3 is onto something: What if we used the scarce resources of agricultural goods more efficiently to put food on the table rather than burning it inefficiently in our combustion engines.

  • Kevin

    I agree with Walter. Corn based ethanol programs just drive up the price of food and should be abandoned.

  • Frank James

    Felipe, I well remember the terrible winters of the 1970s and how supposedly a new Ice Age was upon us. After all, there was more soot in the atmosphere, which blocks out light, and global temps had been dropping for 30 years.

    So a hot summer, or even several, doesn’t impress me much. If CO2 really did cause warming, it would be primarily in the coldest regions, in winter, at night. That’s what the science says, but since that’s not very scary — does it really matter if it is only negative 40 degrees rather than negative 42 in February in Nome? — it is largely ignored.

    Also ignored, of course, is that global warming, whether from CO2 or other causes, is good for humanity — cold kills far more people than warmth, and a longer growing season is good for food supplies. And CO2 itself is unambiguously a very good thing for plants and, eventually, the animals that eat them. Greenhouse operators artificially raise CO2 levels because, well, CO2 is plant food.

    The facts are that warming is good, that rising CO2 almost certainly does more good than harm, and that CO2 levels have been ten times as high as today’s without destroying life. But since there is neither money nor power to be had by objectively considering the facts, we have ludicrously alarmist stories (the Gulf Stream is in peril, the seas are becoming deadly acid, children in the UK won’t see snow ever again, malaria will kill us all) and half-baked, tendentious studies like Mann’s infamous Hockey Stick temperature graph.

    Turns out that Mann refused to share all of his data, and that his mathematical technique were designed to yield a Hockey Stick graph on random data. But no matter to the alarmists. For them, Science is like a lamppost for a drunk: more for support than illumination.

  • juliuscancer

    I recognize that cherry picking examples of climate change often makes for weak and specious arguments, particularly when considering rates of change against the backdrop of geological time. But while those who advocate for reducing our carbon footprint cite examples of record temperatures (when they may only be idiosyncratic fluctuations), it is also important to note that any time there is severe winter weather in the northern hemisphere (oct. snowfall in nyc last year, or heavy snow across the uk a couple of years ago), climate skeptics analogously celebrate their examples as proving global warming is a conspiracy, or that the science is ‘not settled.’

    Prof. Mead has rightfully drawn attention to failure of the green movement’s vision, and the impotence of its policy goals. But in light of the observed changes in the Arctic over just a generation, it may be foolish not to expect more seasons of extreme weather; and since climate skeptics are ‘realists’ who are concerned about our economy, it might be wise to consider the economic risks of things like a) diminished yields in former breadbaskets like the plains b) rising sea levels and increased storm surges on the coast, or c) uber wild fires that consume untold acreage. It would be nice to see more leadership on this front — these are real scenarios and distasters that elected leaders and american voters are already facing. You can scour the web for examples of science being unsettled (the history of science is such a series of disruptions — see this week’s announcement from CERN), but as we will all come to see, the 21st century is witnessing a period of climate change, and nature will testify to such global weirding with increasingly severe weather scenarios. With standard deviation under assault, expect more droughts and floods, fires and storms of the century — coming to a region near you.

  • Kris

    Felipe@2: Unfortunately, a bad harvest is hardly exceptional and is thus not very convincing proof of climate change. But remember that the harvest was originally “expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations”. Aha! Now there’s proof of climate change!


  • vanderleun

    “Corn based ethanol programs just drive up the price of food and should be abandoned.”

    No, no, no,no. Starve more! Starve more and more and more and more….. Make sure they are starved across the board and the planet and then bring the starvation home! After all it’s for the planet! It’s for the children!

  • thibaud

    Scorching weather will boost electricity hence coal usage. Along with increased European demand, US coal company revenues may start to turn around.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Team Obama builds on this positive trend for US coal by tacking away, in coming months, from its anti-coal crusade and starting to offer carrots to the US coal industry.

    (Disclosure: long $BTU, $ANR).

  • Jim.

    Time to break out the GM corn and other crops designed to thrive in spite of this weather.

  • Corlyss

    Mother Nature beat the EPA to it!

  • Felipe Pait

    As I wrote, when the cost of climate change becomes even more evident, glee over the foolishness of people who get their news from TV such as some commenters above will be rather unsatisfactory consolation.

  • Felipe Pait

    Thibaud, cooling is just one use of electricity in the US, and I think there’s spare generating capacity. So I’m not sure your bet on coal will pay off.

    On the other hand, you can safely bet that when something happens – whatever something it is – the free marketeers with all claim that subsidies for coal are an urgent national priority otherwise free markets will collapse.

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