Corn, Food Aid and Climate Change


SEATTLE, Washington– Climate change can have devastating effects on undeveloped countries. The extreme patterns of drought and flooding it causes can destroy crops and cripple agricultural growth. But developed countries like the U.S. – despite their more robust economies – are not immune to climate change either. Recent studies suggest that global warming will hurt U.S. corn yield, which will have negative effects on more than just the agricultural sector.

In the U.S., corn is a $1.7 trillion industry. The crop is used not only to feed people and livestock but also to create ethanol fuels, processed snacks and even plastic and laundry detergent. However, corn plants do not withstand heat and drought very well, and droughts have become an increasing problem. Given current trends, a study posted in Science Magazine reports that U.S. corn growers “could lose as much as 15 percent of their yield within the next 50 years.”

Decreases in corn yield could hurt many sectors of the U.S. economy, from agriculture to manufacturing, and the damage would not be limited to domestic markets. In fact, losing some of the corn crop may limit USAID food aid programs and other forms of foreign assistance.

Corn is one of USAID’s most heavily distributed food staples to countries that face shortages. The organization’s Commodities Reference Guide reports that, in 1997 alone, 269,000 metric tons of corn grain were shipped abroad from U.S. farms, and that doesn’t include 211,000 tons of corn-soybean mixture. These two commodities accounted for 17 percent of all U.S. food aid; only wheat was shipped in higher volume (1,329,000 tons).

What would a decrease in corn supplies mean for aid? While it may decrease direct USAID shipments to countries with shortages, it might also spur more local production of food.

For months, the Obama administration has been asking for food aid providers to buy more from developing countries. This would not only lead to greater economic development but also to reduced shipping costs and faster delivery times for people who need food.

The New York Times reports that such changes to existing programs could help 17 million more people per year. While a reduction in corn shipments might be problematic at first, if the system is reformed, fewer U.S. corn deliveries will be required.

If developing countries want to pursue corn growth, however, they may have a difficult time. Corn requires more water to cultivate than most other crops, and irrigation systems are faltering. Eighty-seven percent of areas where cornfields are irrigated in the U.S. suffer from water shortages, and Science reports that even hardier corn varieties have not reduced water stress.

Food aid and climate change are indisputably linked. Climate change will affect the way we cultivate and distribute food, and in the near future, corn yields and shipments will fall. Depending on how food aid programs adapt to this change, the public can either get closer to ending extreme poverty or be less-equipped to fight it.

Sources: The Guardian, USAID, The New York Times,
Photo: Alpha Coders


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