Extreme Weather Conditions to Threaten U.S. Agriculture for Next Decade

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U.S. agriculture is likely to face harsh weather for the next decade, threatening food production and the livelihood of the nation's farmers.

Extreme weather conditions have slammed the United States this spring. Tornadoes and flooding in many U.S. states have killed hundreds and ripped through millions of acres of farmland. Residents of Joplin, MO continued to sift through rubble this week after being hit Sunday by the nation's deadliest tornado since 1953.

Many U.S. towns now have to rebuild from devastating losses, and many farmers are left with a questionable future for their land.

This prompted a reader to ask the Money Morning Mailbag how U.S. agriculture and food prices have been affected by the nation's drastic weather conditions.

What does all the recent weather catastrophes in the United States mean for crops and farmland? Will this add to food prices that are already too high for our own good?

-- Rob S.

Flooding along the Mississippi River has hurt almost 3.6 million acres of U.S. cropland, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). Arkansas has lost about one million acres, with Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee also affected.

The AFBF estimates flooding has affected upwards of 40% of the nation's rice crop. Floods have also hurt about two million acres of cornfields and brought final soybean plantings to a standstill.

U.S. wheat futures rose 1% yesterday (Thursday) as the country's wheat planting progresses at its slowest pace since 1986. Planting is only 34% complete in the key wheat state of North Dakota, far short of the 85% pace it usually reaches by now.

Many growers counted on big profits this year because of high grain prices, but floodwaters ruined many U.S. crops that were almost ready for harvest.

Flooding threats are common in the farmland-rich regions of the United States, but rains this year have been heavier than usual and farmers are already worried about next season's production.

"We lose acres to flooding every year, but it is always a situation where the water will go down in time for us to plant," Randy Ouzts from seed technology company Horizon Ag told Voice of America News. "And people sometimes to use alternative means to get the crop in, like aerial seeding. But this is unprecedented because of the amount of water that is backed up and out over areas that normally do not flood."

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Ouzts said farmers are seeking U.S. government assistance to help with lost revenue this year and to get ready for next year's production.

"There are meetings going on right now with growers who were unable to plant or who have lost crops. If there is federal funding, it is never enough, but it is better than nothing," said Ouzts.

Some farmers lost crops to deliberate flooding when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened floodgates at the Morganza spillway May 14 in Louisiana to relieve pressure on levees. Three bays were closed Wednesday as the Mississippi River levels started to fall.

AFBF Chief Economist Bob Young said the U.S. government needs to rebuild damaged levees to protect the high-quality soil in the flooded fields.

"You want some expectation, some certainty that you're protected from most floods before you're going to be willing to go in and make the investment and rebuild and reestablish economic activity in those areas," said Young. "If the other alternative is to not have that economic activity there, you could talk about counties where that is the economic base for that county and to not be able to bring that economic activity back, they'd be in real trouble...You want that economic activity to go on back there because there's really nothing else you can do with all that dirt besides agriculture."

Extreme weather conditions aren't just threatening U.S. agriculture, but are expected to affect global food output over the next decade.

"Extreme events will become more intense in the future, especially the heat waves and extreme precipitations," Omar Baddour, a division chief at the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization, told Bloomberg News. "That, combined with less rainfall in some regions like the Mediterranean region and China, will affect crop production and agriculture."

China is set to see harsher droughts after experiencing some of the lowest rainfalls in 50 years this season. China's drought has affected 6.5 million hectares (16.1 million acres) of farmland, according to the Office of State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters.

The dry weather threatens to limit the country's rice production.

"If the drought doesn't end in two weeks, the impact on the region's rice will no doubt be significant," Zhang Lu, an analyst with farm industry research Cngrain.com, told Bloomberg.

Drastic weather and weak crop production is likely to push food prices, which are already breaking records, even higher. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization's World Food Price Index, which tracks 55 food commodity prices, rose nine times in the past 10 months. It peaked at 237.24 in February and hit 232.07 in April.

U.S. agriculture experts say more research is necessary to find ways to adjust farming techniques as global weather patterns shift.

"The improvement of plants is absolutely important given the challenges we are facing, particularly the threat posed by climate change," UN special adviser Olivier de Schutter told Bloomberg.

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