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1,000 Year Mega-Drought in US, War in Ukraine Threaten Food Security Across the Globe

Published: March 10, 2022
A stork stands next to a sunflower in a wheat field near the village of Mala Dyvitsya, some 160 kms from the Ukrainian capital Kiev, on July 27, 2015. (Image: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Following a historically hot and dry summer in 2021 combined with sparse snowfall during the 2021-2022 winter season, severe drought continues to persist throughout much of the U.S. threatening the 2022 growing season which will put further pressure on food stocks and the war in Ukraine is only worsening the situation.

A mega-drought that began around the turn of the millennium in western North America, the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, is the worst seen on the continent since the middle ages and it’s showing no signs of letting up. 

“The years from 2000 to 2021 marked the driest 22-year period in southwestern North America since the year 800 A.D.,” Fox News reported. 

Currently, 51.19 percent of the continental U.S. is impacted by drought and 34.95 percent is considered in “severe drought.” Close to 63 percent of the continental U.S. is considered “abnormally dry.” 

According to Fox Weather, drier-than-average conditions are expected to persist “from southern California and the Southwest into the central and southern Plains, as well as along the Gulf Coast to the Southeast.”

Few areas are expected to experience wetter-than-average spring conditions including portions of the Midwest, northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. 

Drought conditions are beginning to creep into areas previously unaffected. Areas of Texas, that are currently not in drought conditions, are expected to develop drought come the spring with further drought development expected in the Florida Peninsula and Big Bend, southern and southeastern Georgia, parts of the Carolina’s, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania and New York’s Hudson Valley.

Impact on food production

Drought conditions are having a devastating impact on some grain production in the United States however, corn and soybean stocks are at a record high. 

For instance, Montana’s 2021 wheat harvest was100.85 million bushels, just 49 percent of the 10-year average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The sparse harvests have in part caused cash-grain prices to soar to record highs as Russia’s war with Ukraine threatens to send prices even higher. 

Mitch Konen, a wheat farmer from Fairfeild, Montana told Agri-View, that he and other farmers were hit so hard by the 2021 drought that they struggled to fill contracts on the books, “contracts that were supposed to be just 30 percent of what they would cut in a normal year.”

“You see $10 cash prices, now. That’s only good if you’ve got it in the bin. There are probably not a lot of people who have grain in the bin to sell because they already sold it,” Konen said. 

The last time wheat prices were around this level was in 2008, just before the Great Recession. At the time, Montana wheat sales were valued at $1 billion or more, the first time in recorded history. 

The boom in revenue is not expected this time around though as Montana farmers enter a second year of extended drought with little to no wheat reserves. 

The impact of Russia’s war with Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is threatening to increase global food prices of bread, meat, beer and other food staples as inflation remains a significant problem in much of the world. 

The price of wheat shot up a staggering 55 percent the week prior to Russia’s invasion, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.  

The increase in price prompted Scott Irwin, agricultural economist at the University of Illinois to tweet, “I am convinced it is going to be the biggest supply shock to global grain markets in my lifetime.”

Compounding the issue, Ukraine, home to one of the world’s most productive wheat growing regions, has banned the export of wheat, millet, buckwheat, sugar, live cattle, meat and other “byproducts” from cattle in an effort to “preserve supplies within the country,” Newsweek reported. 

Laura Veldkamp, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University’s business school told Newsweek, “Whether or not there was an official ban, these supplies would be interrupted because of sanctions [on Russia], because farmers [in Ukraine] left their farm to fight, because farmers need inputs like machine parts and fertilizer that they will have trouble accessing.” 

“Wheat will be in short supply this year,” Veldkamp said. 

The impact of Russia’s war with Ukraine will be felt in the U.S. as well as Western Europe however poorer nations in the Middle East, like Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen, could see a more devastating impact.

Arnaud Petit, executive director of the International Grains Council, told the Associated Press (AP) that some nations may face food insecurity as soon as the summer since they rely on Ukrainian wheat. Lebanon for instance relies on Ukraine for 60 percent of the nation’s wheat supply and bread products are a staple for the nation’s population. 

It’s not all bad news

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “increased acreage and higher yields for corn and soybeans led to record high soybean production and near-record high corn production,” in 2021. 

Corn growers in the U.S. produced 15.1 billion bushels in 2021, up 7 percent from 2020 representing the second highest yield on record. 

Soybean production hit record highs in 2021 as well despite drought conditions. “Soybean production for 2021 totaled a record-high 4.44 billion bushels, up 5% from 2020. With record high yields in 21 states, the average soybean yield is estimated at 51.4 bushels per acre, 0.4 bushel above 2020 and the second highest on record,” the USDA wrote in a news release

While corn stored in the U.S. as of Dec. 1, 2021 was estimated to be up 3 percent from Dec. 1, 2020 with soybean stocks up 7 percent,  “all wheat stocks were down 18% from a year earlier.”

Ukrainian corn yields have also experienced a boon however, getting the crops to market under the current circumstances may prove difficult. 

Prior to the war, Ukraine was experiencing record high corn yields, according to AgFlow.

Ukraine produced just 1 percent of the world’s corn at the turn of the century however now produces upwards of 17 percent of global corn stocks making the country the world’s fourth largest corn exporter.

However, according to ING the “Spring planting season is just around the corner, and if the current conflict continues into late spring, it is difficult not to see a large downward impact on corn plantings for the 2022/23 season.”