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OPINIONS

Sunshine’s Gloomy Forecast

The storm peaked at 3 a.m., with winds that slammed sheets of rain against the sides of the house. I’d left the window open to hear the rainfall. Now, to get closer to the storm, I wandered outside in my pajamas.

I’ve been inordinately fond of rain since spending a summer in the Pacific Northwest, and as a current California resident, I was looking forward to plentiful thunderstorms on my trip back east. But in the month I’d spent working with collaborators on Cape Cod, this was only the second bout of rainfall I’d seen, and some locals were grumbling about the dry spell’s ill effects on their lawns.

Still, Cape Cod’s dry patch is nothing compared to what is being experienced by the rest of the country. This summer has been the driest since 1936; at one point, three-quarters of the land area in the 48 contiguous states was experiencing drought conditions. As of last week, 20 percent of the country was still experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

To make matters worse, the most afflicted regions overlap with large swaths of the nation’s corn and soybean cropland. Both crops depend upon rainfall for water (unlike fruits and veggies, which are typically irrigated), and during droughts, prospects are grim. At the beginning of August, the United States Department of Agriculture rated almost half the corn crop and one-third of the soybean crop as “poor or very poor.”

The dire predictions have had local and global repercussions. Some farmers cut their losses, mowing and baling stunted corn plants for animal feed. Wall Street futures markets jumped at the thought of a coming shortage. Cattle and pig farmers dialed back production in anticipation of high feed prices late in the season, when they would ordinarily be fattening stock on corn. News agencies warned consumers to expect elevated food prices in the new year, when harvest shortfalls finally trickled down to supermarket shelves. And internationally, food prices, which had already jumped up 10 percent in July, rose again as corn and soybean prices reached an all-time high.

While increasing food costs present budgetary problems to every household, hitting poor families and countries especially hard, the wild fluctuations in food supply – and, therefore, costs – add an extra complication. Variability makes it hard for farmers to know what to plant, for individuals to know what to save and for governments and aid organizations to know how to help.

Since the advent of modern technologies like specialized plant strains, fertilizers and pesticides, we’ve gotten better at dodging crop failure and more efficient at extracting the maximum amount of food out of every farmed acre. Agricultural reliability has been a boon for economic and social growth in much the same way that the advent of agriculture itself was: Rather than spending all our time hunting and gathering (or tending our fields), we could focus our efforts on building civilizations (or businesses) without worrying about our next meal.

But in an unfortunately ironic twist, the reliability of our food crops has actually increased the risk of catastrophic failure. To economize on time and money, most American farms have become centralized, consisting primarily of huge swaths of land planted with one of two cash crops, corn or soybeans. While such a focus has made the United States the world’s biggest corn exporter, it has also left the middle of the country dependent upon the success of a few strains of a couple species. And during a drought year like this one, such dependence is keenly felt.

The future isn’t looking particularly stable either. Scientists predict that anthropogenic climate change will shift rainfall patterns around the globe, likely increasing drought frequency in many of our present-day breadbasket regions. As farmers, markets and trading routes rearrange themselves in an attempt to keep up, global food prices will become more volatile, and global food security will drop. In other words, for most families, dinner will become more expensive and less reliable.

This year, however, as if to underscore the future’s uncertainty, the corn harvest that has begun to trickle in looks better than what had been predicted. Late-season rains may yet bolster wilting soybeans. Food prices may rise only a few percent. And it may not be long before we forget this year’s drought, and turn to the new planting season, humming that old refrain, “When I wanted sunshine, I got rain.”

Holly welcomes questions, comments, and commiseration from other rain-o-philes at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).