Art Cullen: Reasons for rising food prices go beyond pandemic and war


HR King
May 29, 2001
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot in rural Northwest Iowa.
I’d never heard of a “haboob” until I was eating it last Thursday. It’s an Arabic word for dust storm, like the kind you have in a desert, and one blew through northwest Iowa last Thursday. But then I’d never heard of a “derecho” until 2020, when straight-line winds of 100 mph ripped up millions of acres of crops in Iowa and Illinois. It’s not easy planting corn when a haboob is blowing your field into a haze. But then, we have tornadoes at Christmas nowadays.
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Part of New Mexico is on fire. It’s a major beef and dairy state. In California, farmers have ripped up almond groves as water evaporates. The Great Plains, where amber waves of grain are supposed to wave, are subsumed in the same multi-decade drought from North Dakota to Texas.

Egg prices are leading inflationary pressures in the grocery basket. Here in Buena Vista County, Iowa, 5 million egg-layers were exterminated after avian flu hit henhouses in late March. One producer, Rembrandt Foods, was shut down by bird flu in 2015, too. This time, however, the workers were advised to find new jobs. Twice burned, the company has not indicated a future for the shuttered plant.
And if that weren’t enough, Ukraine and Russia, which supply the bulk of wheat to Europe and chronically malnourished Africa, are locked in war with millions of bushels of wheat held hostage.
President Biden popped into both Iowa and Illinois in the past month to buck up farmers. He challenged them to feed a world at war and help battle inflation. He pledged to insure them if they plant soybeans and wheat in the same field the same year — farmers call that double-cropping — but it is a risky proposition in freaky weather. Biden offered $500 million to boost domestic fertilizer production, which is getting expensive and hard to find. He allowed more corn-based ethanol to be sold. The administration is trying to seed the construction of new livestock slaughter facilities to ease supplies and enhance competition.

Yet there is little to suggest that feeding the world is going to get easier or cheaper.
Climate change, livestock pandemics enhanced by huge concentrations of critters, and growing human population will increase food costs, absent a leap forward in technology. Norman Borlaug, the father of the so-called Green Revolution, predicted it as he was introducing new wheat strains to feed starving Latin Americans 50 years ago. Agri-industry did not pay much heed, exhorting farmers to plant more, fertilize more and spray more. We need a big breakthrough: like lab-grown meat.
Those haboobs and derechos, mixed with rains that now flood in torrents rather than fall softly in spring showers, are eroding the soil in the flat land of my home territory at least four times faster than nature can replenish it, according to data compiled by Iowa State University agronomist Rick Cruse, our leading conservation evangelist. It’s not just happening here; soil degradation is crimping Chinese wheat harvests, which means they are hungry for our grain now as well.

Eugene Takle, an Iowa State agronomist and climatologist who wrote the agricultural outlooks for two White House climate assessments, tells us that Iowa corn production could be trimmed by 30 percent in coming decades because of warming and soil degradation. Genetic engineering and super-fertilizers can take you only so far. When the thermometer hits 100 degrees during corn tasseling in July, and the soil isn’t there to hold moisture, all you can do is grit your teeth.
Midwestern farmers have fancied themselves as world-feeders since Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson told them so back in the Eisenhower administration. People continued to starve around the world — malnutrition is known even in Iowa — as we plowed through the grass and into the riverbanks to plant more soybeans. We got cheap chicken hindquarters out of the deal, but we also are suffocating the Gulf of Mexico with that fertilizer-rich dirt running down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
The war in Ukraine exposed the fragility of food security in a global economy. So did the coronavirus: Shut down a half-dozen meatpacking plants for a week or two and meat prices shoot up 50 percent in the grocery store. Disease can wipe out concentrated livestock in a blink. The megadrought in the plains and most points west is not relenting. All of it adds long-term pressure on meat, dairy and grain markets.
You had better save up for breakfast. Those eggs aren’t getting cheaper.