The United Nations recently called drought “a hidden global crisis” – a problem so severe it rivals the Covid pandemic in its consequences for people around the world. Just how bad is the problem we face today? What causes drought, and what can we do about it? And should we worry about its effects on our food supply?
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How widespread is the drought problem?
Drought conditions have been reported around the world, often involving some of the major agricultural producing nations.
In the United States, drought remains a very serious issue across much of the Western States and large portions of the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, including important production regions for wheat, feed grains, and oilseeds. California agricultural growing areas—including key centers for production of fruits, vegetables, and dairy — have been experiencing drought conditions described as “extreme” and “exceptional.” Conditions in the North and Southeast also are described as “moderate drought.”
Prolonged drought in these areas can have a significant effect on overall U.S. food supplies. California, for example, provides one-quarter of our total U.S. food supply. The Golden State is the nation’s largest dairy producer and grows as much as 80 percent of all the fruits and vegetables produced in the United States. North Dakota farmers provide more than half of all U.S, durum and spring wheat, key components of pasta and bread.
In contrast, conditions across much of the Midwest, South, and other portions of the country are generally in good shape for moisture.
Seriously dry conditions have steadily expanded across South America since at least 2018, moving from key areas in Brazil to include parts of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina.
Regional and local droughts also have plagued major crop production areas in Australia, Ukraine, and parts of Africa and Asia in recent years.
The mixed bag of conditions has farmers and others across the agricultural sector keeping a close eye on weather patterns. Timely rains during the growing season can help make up for the early lack of moisture to some degree. At present, forecasts call for another good year of overall food production. But as with any “average” assessment, the forecasts mask the severity of potential damage to the most hard-hit areas.
What are the causes of drought?
The debate over climate change has produced some widely divergent points of view about the causes of drought and extreme weather conditions in general. Most experts tend to agree that the reasons most likely involve a combination of natural and man-made causes. But opinions vary on the relative importance of each set of factors.
What influences weather patterns?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cites a variety of contributing factors:
- Uneven heating and atmospheric pressure close to the earth’s surface cause global winds. These winds then push around large air masses, which meet and collide to create storms or clear skies.
- In the atmosphere, jet streams send weather systems, heat, and moisture around the globe.
- El Nino and La Nina are significant factors for temperature, rainfall, air pressure, atmospheric and ocean circulation that influence each other
- Variations in the location and size of the ozone layer
Climate activists, in particular, are quick to note the importance of human behavior in creating water issues. Reducing fossil fuel use, employing more aggressive water conservation and water-use practices, curtailing agricultural practices that require intensive use of water, protecting water supplies from contamination and other practices are major goals. Whether such efforts deal with the causes of climate change and drought or merely its symptoms, continue to be debated.
What effects will drought have on our food system and our families?
Drought affects both crop and livestock production, obviously. Dealing with the problem poses different sets of problems and issues for both.
Livestock producers can reduce herds and flocks or bring in water supplies to deal with temporary needs. Bigger issues emerge for them when drought limits their ability to grow their own feed stocks.
Of equal concern, drought harms crop yields. That means we have less food from the land in production. Just watch the below clips of Western Growers interviewing farmers who had to abandon their crops due to drought conditions.
Joe Del Bosque, farmer, had to sacrifice his asparagus field due to drought conditions. As a result, 70 people lost their jobs. Click here to view an almond farmer and del Bosque’s melon farm. Source: Western Growers via YouTube.
The amount of reduction in food production can vary widely, depending on the severity of the dry conditions.
Academic studies show divergent projections of the effect of climate change on global food production. One study led by Cornell University estimated that global food productivity has been reduced by 21 percent by climate change. Other studies by USDA’s Economic Research Service project yield declines across corn, soybeans, sorghum, rice, oats, cotton, and silage as a result of climate change (and alterations to irrigation patterns that are driven by water concerns). The journal One Earth warns that forecast increases in global temperatures will alter rainfall patterns and shrink the globe’s food-productive areas by as much as a third.
Buried within what is likely a mish-mash of science, hyperbole, ideological bias, and sincere passion is a single obvious truth: the world faces changing climatological conditions that already are affecting our ability to produce the food the world needs. What we do in response will determine how significant the effect of drought and other possible manifestations of climate change will be on our long-term food security.
Are our prime growing areas changing?
Where drought occurs is a critical factor, too. When drought hits major production areas for cornerstone commodities – food grains, feed grains, or oilseeds, for example, the adverse effects are magnified across the entire global food system. Reduced supplies in the face of continuing strong demand result in higher prices, or even spot shortages. Smaller crops of fruits and vegetables can hit consumers harder and more quickly, especially if the normal distribution system that supplies products from distant sources has been disrupted.
Those sorts of traditional concerns regarding the effects of drought have been joined by rising concerns about climate change. Some scientists worry that an increase in the frequency, duration, and severity of drought conditions could signal a fundamental shift in climatic conditions and weather patterns.
If so, that would mean the areas of historically highest productivity – the prime growing areas of many crops – could be shifting, moving generally northwards in the Northern Hemisphere and southerly in the Southern Hemisphere. Imagine the heart of the American corn belt stretching from Ohio to the Dakotas moving north into Canada, or traditional southern crops like cotton and sorghum migrating north. Such new cropping patterns would mean a massive change in the structure and functioning of the current global food system.
What can be done?
The issue of drought – and the larger matter of climate change — won’t be resolved by any single action or practice but rather through a comprehensive long-term approach that touches on virtually every sector of our society. Remember, humans are resilient and innovative. We will adopt new solutions to address our changing climate.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t take immediate steps to deal with the issue of drought that has plagued humankind long before the term “climate change” was coined.
- More attention to soil health. The use of cover crops reduced tillage, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help make the soil “spongier” and better suited to the retention of moisture
- Better conservation of water and water use techniques
- Better use of technology to monitor and manage soil conditions
- Continued development and use of drought-resistant seeds
- Continued reliance on open trade is a critical tool in assuring a steady supply of the foods consumers want and need every day
What about us consumers?
Perhaps the most important role the consumer can play in dealing with drought and other climate-related problems is that of an active participant in our food system.
Consumers can recognize the up-and-down nature of food prices as a result of disruptions to normal food production patterns. Even with severe and pronounced drought in areas around the world, there is no shortage of food. Our food security is not at risk.
But we all have a role to play in assuring that we react positively to the possibility of longer-term changes to our food system, driven by climate issues. The days of profligate and extravagant use of water or other natural resources in our food system are gone – long gone. Farmers and others across the food chain are working hard to adapt to this new reality, and consumers can speed that process by demanding responsibly produced food products.
Look for food products that have been produced sustainably, using the techniques and tools available to us to make the best use of water and other natural resources. Speak up to food suppliers about it. Look for labels and other product information that makes the techniques and standards used in food production, manufacturing, and packaging more transparent. Your voice counts, so make it heard. Email us at [email protected]!
The Bottom Line
The current severe drought across parts of the United States may prove devastating to local agricultural interests. They will contribute to price volatility for some products, primarily on a local level. But they won’t create significant long-term threats to the U.S food supply. They should, however, remind us all of the shared stakes we have in efforts to make the best possible use of water and other natural resources in producing the food we put on our plates every day.