U.S. drought destroys crops, increases food prices

Source: E&E • Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The United States is experiencing the most widespread drought in more than 50 years, and experts say it is only going to get worse.

Record-high temperatures have caused wildfires, depleted municipal water supplies and destroyed crops, and they will likely slow an already struggling economy as food and shipping prices rise.

The National Weather Service forecasts activity in the Gulf of Mexico and the Southeast that could bring rain to regions in the South. However, much of the nation’s breadbasket will remain dry and hot.

“It really is a crisis. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Gov. Pat Quinn (D) of Illinois said after touring ravaged farms in the southern part of the state.

One-third of the nation’s counties — 1,297 of them across 29 states — are considered federal disaster areas, which allows farmers to apply for low-interest loans to carry them through the poor growing season. Many agriculturalists have had to sell their corn crops early, an unprofitable move. It’s worse, however, for those who must watch as their cash crops die.

Eighty-eight percent of U.S. corn and 87 percent of soybean crops are growing in drought regions, according to an analysis released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor. And as of July 15, more than half the corn in seven states was in poor or very poor condition, according to the Department of Agriculture.

“We’re expecting significant reductions in production potential yield, potential for corn and soybeans in particular,” said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with USDA.

The livestock sector isn’t doing much better. More than half of pasture and rangeland is in poor or very poor condition, according to USDA, and ranchers are selling off their animals in herds.

However, some industry insiders say farmers are better prepared to handle this year’s heat wave than they were in 1988, when drought conditions were even worse for Midwestern agriculture. Now more than 80 percent of corn and soybean crops are insured.

Last year, crop insurers paid a record $11 billion in indemnity payments, and that “should serve as a good model for what farmers can expect this year,” Tom Zacharias, president of National Crop Insurance Services, said in a news release (John Eligon, New York Times, July 19). –MBI