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Major shifts in U.S. agricultural production could be bigger problem than climate change

As the Midwest goes, so go corn prices. That’s no surprise to anyone who is remotely familiar with U.S. agriculture.

Whenever there’s a major drought in the country’s midsection, there’s a corresponding spike in corn prices, and it makes little difference what’s going on here in the Southeast.

In fact, more than a few growers in the Southeast will make or already have made record-high or near-record-high corn yields this year — especially those fortunate enough to have irrigation — but it’s irrelevant from a national standpoint.

It’s all due, of course, to economies of scale — Midwestern corn production matters most because that’s where most of the corn is grown. But why is this so? Maybe it’s time we more closely examined the regional concentration of crop production in the U.S. and its long-term consequences.

Two Alabama scientists — Richard McNider and John Christy — make a compelling case that major shifts in U.S. agricultural production during the last century could be a bigger risk in drought years than climate change.

McNider, Distinguished Professor of Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), and Christy, Alabama’s state climatologist and director of the UAH Earth Sciences System Center, say that while some have connected recent droughts to climate change and warned about the impacts of climate change on agricultural production, the real take-away from this summer’s drought may be recognizing the agricultural changes that make us vulnerable to climate. 

According to the scientists, beginning in the middle of the last century, there was a major shift in U.S. agriculture from a distributed agricultural system, where corn and vegetables were grown in most every state, to one in which nearly 90 percent of the nation’s corn production was concentrated in the upper Midwest.

A similar shift, they say, occurred in vegetable and potato production, concentrating production in the desert climates of the West.

“The deep, water-holding soils of the Midwest on average produced higher yields than the poorer water-holding soils in most states. Irrigated vegetables grown in the deserts of California and potatoes in Idaho could be counted upon to be perfect regardless of weather. It was economics 101 — the most efficient producer of a better product prevailed,” say McNider and Christy.

But, they warn, the resulting concentration of production and neglect of the externalities of environmental costs ultimately may be the Achilles heel of this increased efficiency.

With the concentration of grain crops in such a relatively small area of the country, the U.S. is more vulnerable to intense regional droughts, such as the one in the Midwest this past summer.

“With nearly 90 percent of our corn produced in one small area, the nation’s total corn production is truly jeopardized. The price of corn has increased by nearly 75 percent this summer because so much of the production is being affected and so many products, even Tennessee Whiskey, rely on Midwest corn.

“Had this same drought occurred during the 1940s, with less concentration of production, the impact on the national supply of corn probably would have been less.”

The concentration of corn production in the upper Mississippi Valley, they say, has been linked to “dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico because of agricultural run-off.

“When plants have enough water, they can take up the amount of fertilizer that is applied. However, in droughts, fertilizer is left in the ground. When rains come, this run-off coupled with below-average river flows will likely lead to even greater concentration of nutrients carried to the Gulf.”

At the present time, say McNider and Christy, much of the country’s vegetable production relies on flows from the Colorado River and local flows from the Sierra Nevada. The nation’s potatoes, which were once grown in Maine, New York and Pennsylvania, now rely on the flow of the Snake River. 

“However, the historical climate has shown that the last 100 years was likely the wettest century in the last 500 years. If we return to the drier climate of the last 500 years, the flows of these rivers will be threatened and vegetable production substantially reduced.

While regional climate projections are uncertain, there appears to be some consensus in models that the Southwest will become drier.

Similarly, neglect of the environmental costs of desert irrigation on water resources (and their subsidized nature) may make the efficiency less clear than pure market economics would dictate.”

Perhaps, they suggest, it’s time we determine whether the highly efficient, but concentrated agricultural system that evolved in the last century is sustainable and stable enough for the future.

And what if it isn’t sustainable? One option suggested by the scientists would be to build the irrigation infrastructure in the Eastern U.S. that will allow us to once again decentralize our agricultural production and reduce our vulnerability to the vagaries of climate.

For Southeastern farmers, that could be a profitable option.


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