By this point in the summer, corn stalks are supposed to be as high as a farmer’s head, not his knees. But this is no normal summer in the agricultural heartland of the United States. The stunted plants, bending over cracked and dusty fields, are a product of the worst drought to hit the United States in more than 50 years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already forecast a 3 to 4 percent rise in domestic food prices next year and more than 1,000 counties across the country have been declared disaster areas. Data released on July 26 by the U.S. Drought Monitor found that the situation is only worsening, with almost two-thirds of the United States affected.
Farmers and consumers in America, however, aren't the only ones hoping for rain. Experts say the destructive dry spell is helping to drive food prices up beyond U.S. borders and could potentially trigger a global food crisis.
"This is a once- or twice-a-century drought, and it's more severe than anybody has been preparing for," says Robert Thompson, former director of agriculture and rural development at the World Bank and currently a visiting scholar at Washington's Johns Hopkins University. "It's huge with respect to the world market for maize and soybeans."
Maize, or corn, has been hit hardest by the soaring temperatures and lack of rain, with some 78 percent of the U.S. crop feeling the effects. More than 11 percent of the national soybean crop has also been hit.
The United States is the world's biggest producer of both, which means the repercussions will be felt well beyond the country's borders. Around the world, corn is used in a wide range of products, from processed foods to biofuels. Soy is used mainly in food products. Both are also used as animal feed, which means the price of meat could also be impacted.
The higher corn and soy prices also drive up demand for wheat. As a result, the cost of that grain is on the rise as well.
According to the World Bank, global prices for corn and wheat have risen by more than 45 and 50 percent, respectively, since mid-June. Soybean prices are up nearly 30 percent since June 1.
Too Little, Too Much Rain
Driving those increases, the bank said, are a number of factors: What it called the "exceptional" U.S. drought; a dearth of rain for Russian, Ukrainian, and Kazakh wheat crops; too much rain throughout much of Europe; and assorted other adverse environmental conditions.
The World Bank has pledged to help governments mitigate the impact through fast-track financing and other programs. Developing nations, including in Central America and sub-Saharan Africa, are expected to be hit hardest.
According to Thompson, countries could also increase pressure on food prices by stockpiling grains, as they did during the 2008 food crisis. Then, India shut down exports of rice and Russia and Ukraine severely limited wheat shipments.
The current scare is also bringing back memories of 2011, when soaring food prices helped spur popular revolutions across the Arab world.
"Nothing will bring down a government faster than hungry people, so it's not difficult to panic consumers, as well as governments," Thompson said.
Impact On Humanitarian Relief
Price hikes and potential food shortages are alarming aid organizations, too.
Rene McGuffin, a spokesperson for the UN World Food Program (WFP), the world's largest humanitarian aid agency focused on combating hunger, says the drought could have serious consequences for the organization's goal of feeding millions of people, in countries from Afghanistan to Ethiopia and Iraq to Kyrgyzstan.
"High and volatile food prices affect WFP and our ability to feed the world's hungriest poor in two ways," McGuffin says. "We have to spend more to purchase food for the hungry -- and we estimate that every 10 percent increase in the price of the food that we distribute means an additional $200 million a year is required to buy that same amount of food. At the same time, the volatile food prices drive up the number of people needing food assistance."
The full effect of the U.S. drought on global food prices will take months to fully emerge. But according to experts, it isn't too early to see the current concerns as part of a disturbing pattern: Food security crises appear to be occurring with increasing frequency.
"As a result of climate change," Thompson says, "we are seeing more frequent occurrence of extreme climatic events -- extreme droughts, extreme floods. We had the flooding in Pakistan a couple of years ago. We had severe droughts in the last five years in Russia, as well as Australia. This is having an impact, increasing the volatility, and increasing the risk in global agriculture markets."
Short of tackling climate change, countries will have to adjust their agricultural policies accordingly, Thompson says, and invest in research to produce more flood and drought-resistant varieties of crops.