The bell tolls for us all

The global implications of this year’s devastating drought in the US. [21 August 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Dead and dying corn in an Oklahoma field, July 2012

Here’s a corny tale that might turn out to pack a much bigger punch than any of us first thought. It all comes down to that most essential human need, food.

Corn, or more correctly, maize, is the world’s biggest grain crop, far exceeding either wheat or rice in weight. Forty per cent of the world’s maize is grown in the United States.

The US is also the global capital of fast food, in which corn plays a big part. Research tracing the chemical make-up of fast food in the US has found that virtually all of it has a significant corn content, via cooking oils, flour, sweeteners and meat produced from cornmeal.

There’s another way of viewing fast food. UK public health specialist Ian Roberts, who has made a career studying the link between our lifestyles and our increasing body mass, believes that our preference for fast food is the inevitable result of decades of underpriced motor fuel.

He reveals how this works in The Energy Glut, a little gem of a book describing the linkages between obesity and energy use.

The developed world has long been hooked on cars fuelled by cheap oil; now developing countries have caught the bug. Roberts tells how, with global car usage at unprecedented levels, we’re now less active than we used to be and more reliant on getting food on the run.

Fast food is attractive for good reason. Roberts points out that we’re naturally drawn to eating sugars and fats, essential ingredients of fast food, because these are the high-energy foods that enabled us to out-perform other species and become an evolutionary success story.

Attempts to modify our eating through weight-loss diets, says Roberts, can’t work unless we also address the environment that shapes our eating behaviours. “Fatness is a normal response to a low-movement environment that is full of energy-dense foods.”

Roberts sees the obesity epidemic resulting not from over-indulgent individuals, but from social and political mindsets that assign status and benefits to car usage without regard to the attendant costs, including expensive roads, dysfunctional communities — and human inactivity and obesity.

That’s one part of the corn story. But we need to remind ourselves that while obesity is rampant in the world’s richer places, daily hunger is the stark reality for people lacking the privilege of wealth and power. This is where the story of corn begins to get murkier.

Murkier still: besides food, corn has a role in motor fuel production. There’s a law in the US that says by 2022 the country’s fuel supply must include 15 billion gallons of domestic corn ethanol. The result is that 40 per cent of US corn stocks are now being used to produce petrol.

We can ask how anyone could think that plants grown today can replace the millions of years of plant growth forming today’s fossil fuel deposits. But here’s a more pressing question: How will the world’s underfed people be affected by more and more crop food being turned into motor fuel?

This might be just another “what if” question except for one thing: the weather. Right now, two of the world’s biggest grain producers — the US and Russia — are experiencing severe drought.

In the case of Russia, the drought may mean a repeat of 2010, when the country banned the export of wheat to protect its own food security. That would be bad enough in a world already facing rising grain prices across the board, but events in the US this northern summer could be a killer blow.

Early this year corn producers in the US mid-west were looking forward to a bumper crop. During a warm spring, optimistic farmers planted 39 million hectares of corn — the highest in 75 years — and looked forward to a record harvest. Spring rainfall was down, but things still looked promising in early May.

That was then. Corn is a thirsty plant, and as the big dry continued the corn crop stopped growing. It turned into the worst US drought since 1956, now affecting over half the entire country.

The damage from drought might have been contained if it hadn’t been for successive summer heatwaves that left Americans gasping and their food crops wilting. Corn is far more vulnerable than wheat to hot weather. With multiple days of hot weather, it goes into shock and dies.

Early June saw 10 successive days of temperatures above 100F (about 38C) in the US corn belt, an event repeated in July. With early August bringing no relief, the US Department of Agriculture’s most recent forecast is that national corn production will be the lowest since 2006, with the average yield per hectare the lowest since 1995.

The sting is in the corn market, with the commodity fetching a record price above $8 a bushel and heading for $9. While poorer Americans will feel the food price squeeze over the coming northern winter, a much greater impact will be felt elsewhere in the world.

The global food market will push up the price of wheat and rice as a result of the increasing world shortage of corn and soybeans (also affected by the US drought). It doesn’t take much effort to imagine the effect on people already in trouble trying to feed their families.

Last year’s “Arab spring” uprisings were sparked by sharp rises in bread prices in Tunisia, but the causal chain leading to that can be traced all the way back to drought in Russia and China — and floods in Australia, a major wheat exporter.

We need food. If it’s priced out of our reach we become twitchy. Large numbers of twitchy people are a grave and sometimes fatal threat to governments and whole systems of governance.

The drought and heatwave of this northern summer will have an impact well into next year, and perhaps far beyond. As the Reverend Donne said a long time ago, we don’t need to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for us all.

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