Alarms Sound over World Food Supply as Drought Wilts US Corn Belt

Article excerpt

The US government on Friday slashed estimates for global food supply as a deepening drought withers corn and soybean crops in America's heartland. 'Scary situation,' one analyst says.

A historic Midwest drought prompted the US government on Friday to slash supply estimates for nearly everything in the US cornucopia, including corn, soybeans, and sorghum - a move that caused commodity prices to jump and concerns about the state of the global food cupboard to rise.

US corn and soybeans are crucial to global food supply because they are used for food, feed, cooking oil, and even motor fuel. Reduced supply and higher prices mean that poorer, import-reliant nations may not be able to replenish their food stocks.

"This is shocking," Dan Basse, president of Ag Resources, said during a conference call on Thursday, ahead of the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report from the US Department of Agriculture. "This is getting people at the United Nations very concerned. The poor in the world are going to see tremendous pressure on their budgetary expenditure for calories. This has become a very scary situation, particularly for those in the world who are impoverished."

With the release of the global supply and demand report Friday morning, prices on the commodities exchange in Chicago rose to all- time highs for corn and soybeans, the hardest-hit crops so far. The estimate for the US corn crop is at the lowest level since 1995-96, when many fewer acres were planted.

The report piggy-backed on the release Thursday of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Food Price Index, which showed global food prices rising by 6 percent, largely because of the US drought. Untimely rains in sugar-producing Brazil and dry conditions in Russia's wheat belt, too, have taken a toll.

The hottest July on record in the Lower 48 and scant rainfall have created the widest US drought since 1956, wiping out much of the corn and soybean crops, which are used globally and domestically for food, feed, and ethanol production. In the US, which is the world's top exporter of corn, more than half the crop is now considered in "poor" condition. The Agriculture Department on Friday slashed yield estimates by 12 percent, from 146 bushels per acre to 123 bushels per acre.

American farmers had planted the largest corn crop ever this year, in response to high commodity prices and high global demand. The US was supposed to be "swimming" in corn this fall. Instead, the harvest will be a "train wreck," Kelly Wiesbrock, a fund manager for Harvest Capital Strategies, tells the Reuters news service.

Higher commodity prices mean poorer countries will import much less, putting millions of people on the lower rungs of the global food chain in jeopardy, and potentially creating a situation similar to the world food crisis of 2007-08. In all, estimates for this year's global grain supply are down by 180 million metric tons - enough to fill about 360 supertankers to the brim. …

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