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Environmental analyst presents gloomy outlook on corn yields

July 26, 2012 | 0 comments

Weighing in on the declining outlook for yields of this year's corn crop in the United States, environmental analyst and Earth Policy Institute president Lester Brown warned in a July 19 teleconference that what's happening this year is not necessarily a one-year phenomenon.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's weekly crop condition reports indicated that the portion of the 2012 corn crop which was rated as either excellent or good plummeted from 77 percent on May 27 to only 31 percent by July 15, Brown noted.

On those grounds, he challenged the department's July 11 report which cut the estimate for this year's domestic corn by 47 million tons (12 percent) to 329 million tons from what it had projected on June 12.

Raw data for the weekly crop condition updates is collected from between 4,000-5,000 observers on Sundays, Brown pointed out. The summary of their reports is released on Monday afternoons.

Based on the 35 percent reduction in the 1988 corn crop yield because of that year's drought, Brown contends that a 95 million ton or 25 percent reduction would be more accurate for this year.

He bases that on the widespread deterioration of the crop caused by a combination of a drought covering 64 percent of the country - plus another 16 percent being "abnormally dry" - and long periods of hot weather during the pollination period for much of the corn crop.

The hottest average temperatures on record in the United States for the first six months of 2012 were followed immediately by two more very hot and dry periods during the first half of July, Brown observed.

"That takes a toll," he said.

Regarding corn, Brown explained that plant photosynthesis peaks at 68 degrees, continues on a virtual level plane until 95 degrees, and then declines and shuts down at 104 degrees. He described such temperatures as "a thermal shock for corn," meaning that silks dry out and turn brown in the intense heat, thereby preventing pollination.

In the St. Louis area, which is near the southern edge of the main Corn Belt, temperatures topped 100 degrees for 10 consecutive days in late June and early July, Brown stated. He noted that very high temperatures also prevailed for several consecutive days in much of the Corn Belt this year.

Brown looks at what's happening in 2012 as something that is likely to become more common. He said that "agriculture, as it exists today, is based on 11,000 years of remarkable stability" in which production was closely linked to a fairly predictable and consistent climate system - one whose continuation is now in doubt.

"It's not clear" how a different and more erratic climate will translate into agricultural production in the future, but it's essential to reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere immediately, Brown declared.

He suggested using up to one-half of the Department of Defense budget to engage in that task.

The weather in 2012 is "a manifestation of climate change" that might in large part be traced to the 20 percent increase in carbon emissions since 1970, Brown suggested.

"The carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere," he said.

Whatever the size of the 2012 domestic corn crop proves to be, Brown doesn't see an immediate food and feed shortage, but predicted that prices of meat and eggs are sure to rise as a result.

He noted that on July 18 the futures prices for feedstuffs rose to record highs, topping $8 per bushel for corn, $9 for wheat and $17 for soybeans, along with a soybean meal price of $514 per ton.

From a historical perspective, the prices for those commodities were already quite high before the deterioration of the corn crop took hold, Brown remarked. "We're in uncharted economic territory."

Global impact

What could unfold as a result of the diminished 2012 corn crop includes civil unrest in some countries because of high food prices, restrictions on crop exports as some countries are already doing with wheat, a sparking of land grabs by a few countries to secure food production for themselves, higher land prices, and development of "an every country for itself" attitude on food security, Brown indicated.

Water shortages are more frequent and dust bowls are becoming larger on several continents, Brown observed. He focuses on those and related points in a book titled "Full Planet: Empty Plates," set to be published on Oct. 1.

That the fate of corn production in the United States is crucial on a world stage is evident because corn represents 80 percent of the country's grain production and the world depends on its corn exports, Brown stated. He noted that Argentina, the second leading corn exporter, provides only about one-third of the U.S. volume in corn exports.

Around the world, twice as much corn as rice is relied on for human food and livestock feed, Brown pointed out. He said that one effect of the reduced volume and higher cost of the 2012 corn crop would be that some three billion people around the world who are hoping to move up the food chain might have to move down on it instead.

Iowa alone produces more grain than all of Canada and more soybeans than China, Brown pointed out. He added that the production of those grains in Illinois nearly matches Iowa's totals.

From its early season forecasts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has trimmed its prediction for the year's corn harvest by 1.8 billion bushels. Brown contends that the estimated amount of the reduction needs to be significantly increased.

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