Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

US Politicians Must Regulate Finance to Tackle the Drought and Food-Price Crisis

US leaders worked hard to tackle the 1930s drought and food crisis. Today they are supine, offering the hungry only prayers

Raj Patel

 by The Guardian

If you're wondering whether the US drought will create a global food crisis, the answer's easy. It's yes, because there's a food crisis already. The latest year for which we have figures is 2010, when 925 million people were declared malnourished. Soon after the number was announced, the World Bank corrected it upward, and recently said that the number of hungry people is "almost 1 billion".

Make no mistake: the US drought is fierce. In June this year, out of a possible 171,442 temperature records, 2,284 were broken and 998 were tied. The London Olympic Games should be so lucky. The drought isn't merely bad because the crops are parched. Climate change has nudged the temperature more than a degree higher than the previous record-breaking US drought in the 1950s. The heat is killing natural systems, and making recovery far harder. We don't yet know what the final reckoning will be for food prices. Corn hit a record $8 a bushel on Monday (in September 2006, the price was nearer $2 a bushel). The price is driven by a demand for animal feed, high-fructose corn syrup, and an incredibly stupid US biofuels policy that mandates the transformation of food into ethanol. With the US producing over half of world corn exports, and with the price of those exports set by domestic uses of corn, the US drought will have a profound impact on prices.

Other grains aren't having a great year either. The US is a major soy exporter, and prices have soared over the past few days. Nor is America the only place to suffer extreme weather. This year, a late monsoon in India, and an ongoing southern European heatwave, add to the uncertainty about harvests and crops.

Uncertainty is profitable. The Food and Agriculture Organization is worried about price swings, even though prices are far from their 2011 peaks. Volatile prices create markets for hedge funds to trade and gamble on future trends. Traders, enabled by lax futures regulations, are perhaps the only people to see the bright side of the beating sun.

Which is why it's worth looking to history. Record-breaking weather, farmers losing crops, banks repossessing land from the poor, a president scorned by his opponents for socialism. We've seen this before. Such were the conditions of the dust bowl in the 1930s. Then, the drought stretched across most of the decade. By 1938, 80% of the Great Plains had been damaged by wind erosion. In large part, it was because farmers on small farms weren't taking care of the soil. What would bring farmers to the point of destroying the soil on which they depended? Most of them were deeply indebted to banks, and hanging on by their fingernails. Environmental destruction staved off financial oblivion.

In response, the Soil Conservation Service was created to help farmers directly. But farmers' financial crises needed more than tree-planting. The dust bowl was also tackled with changes in the banking system, regulation to stop foreclosure, stabilization policies to stop wild swings in prices, and even, as part of the New Deal, employment in the Worlds Progress Administration to help the former family farmers cast off their land for ever.

These policies didn't come easily. They were the fruits of widespread organizing, from the work of socialist leagues to the populism of Huey Long. All of this is worth recording, because in the wake of the 2008 food price crisis, so little has changed. The US government hasn't sufficient grain in its reserves to stabilize prices. Public grain reserves were shrugged off in the 1990s as inefficient. No sense in having mountains of grain when, in a pinch, the market could be counted on to provide. Perish the thought that governments might intervene in the banking sector, or engage in public works programs so that the hungry, 60% of whom are women or girls, might afford to eat.

Instead, the US secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has this to offer: "I get on my knees every day, and I'm saying an extra prayer now. If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it." So politicians, parched of ideas, are supine. They chant mantras about the sparkle of the agricultural and financial innovation that will, soon, provide relief. But the heat is strong and the sun is high. Their oasis is a mirage.

© 2020 The Guardian
Raj Patel

Raj Patel

Raj Patel is an activist, academic and author of "Stuffed and Starved" (2012) and more recently "The Value of Nothing" (2010). His current project is called the "Generation of Food Project, a documentary and book about the future of the food system.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Store Walkout Over Firing of Starbucks Union Organizer Racks Up 20 Million Views on TikTok

"Starbucks continues its rampant firing of union leaders."

Jake Johnson ·

70% of Americans Support Deciding State Abortion Rights by Ballot Measure: Poll

After an "enormous victory" in Kansas, some progressives argue that ballot measures "are the next frontier" for protecting access to reproductive healthcare.

Jessica Corbett ·

Judge Rules Walgreens 'Substantially Contributed' to San Francisco Opioid Crisis

"Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was nonexistent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming pace to increase profits," said an attorney for the California city.

Brett Wilkins ·

Historic Climate Bill, Say Clear-Eyed Critics, Still 'Pours Gasoline on the Flames'

"This was a backdoor take-it-or-leave-it deal between a coal baron and Democratic leaders in which any opposition from lawmakers or frontline communities was quashed," said one activist.

Jessica Corbett ·

Doctors Against Oz Launch Campaign Denouncing GOP Candidate as 'Quack'

"ShamWow guy + stethoscope = Dr. Oz," said John Fetterman, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Pennsylvania.

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo