Study sees heat hitting hard in Iowa, other Corn Belt states in future

Global warming seen affecting market prices

Published: April 29 2012 | 5:15 pm - Updated: 3 April 2014 | 5:28 pm in
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Get ready for the heat.

Scientists at Stanford University in California and Purdue University in Indiana say global warming is going to hit hard in Corn Belt states where it most matters — the corn market. The study, financed by the U.S. Department of Energy, says that the corn market will be walloped in the coming years by climate change.

Factors such as market policies or oil prices have comparatively little effect on corn prices compared to global warming, the study says. In fact, heat waves sparked by rising global temperatures are expected to become more common, withering crops in the Midwest, scientists say.

Farmers would be forced to increase their crops’ heat tolerance or move northward to farm near the Canadian border to avoid the heat waves.

“Severe heat is the big hammer,” Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant Stanford professor of environmental Earth system science, has said in recent media interviews. “These are substantial changes in price volatility that come from relatively moderate global warming.”

“U.S. corn-price volatility exhibits higher sensitivity to near-term climate change than to energy policy influences or agriculture-energy market integration,” wrote researchers Diffenbaugh, Thomas Hertel, Martin Scherer and Monika Verma in the article published on Sunday.

The corn market is already struggling with an over-supply, as more acreage has been planted in the United States than any year since 1937, according to one government estimate. The abundance in supply has contributed to a drop in prices.

The scientists say policies do make a difference, particularly government mandates surrounding the corn market. Federal biofuel mandates, for example, are contributing to the oversupply of corn, and could make it difficult in future years for farmers to adjust to volatile yields, they say.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a member of the Agriculture Committee, says he saw the study and believes that farmers and scientists may have to develop hybrid crops that can handle the upcoming temperature changes.

“It is a concern,” Harkin told The Gazette. “Climate change is going to be a continuing challenge for farmers. We’re still going to have variability, but the trend is going to be for warmer and warmer temperatures, and the big swings are going to be extreme.”

Harkin also called for improved conservation policies that can protect fields against excessive rainfall or droughts, but he also noted that demand for grain is on the rise worldwide instead of a descent.

“There will be temporary fluctuations in the corn market, but I think the trend is going to be one where there’s going to be strong prices for corn for the foreseeable future,” Harkin said. “Our farm bill basically leaves in place those programs that allow farmers to make their decisions based upon what the market signals that they’re getting.”

A 45-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax that was intended to support demand for ethanol expired last year after Congress refused to renew it. However, increased support for biofuels will continue to encourage more corn production as opposed to other crops, scientists say.

Harkin’s Senate colleague, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, thinks the trend will be beneficial, since farmers will have more northward acreage to farm. But he also said that crops have historically proven an ability to adapt.

“Science continues to increase the ability of corn crops to withstand varied weather patterns and minimizing crop yield volatility,” Grassley said. “In just the last couple of decades, corn yield volatility has been greatly reduced because of drought tolerance and other new traits, for example.”

Many Senate Republicans are still skeptical about climate change, raising concerns that a tweaked farm bill can make it through the chamber. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., for example, calls the theory “a hoax.”

But most say they acknowledge the science, even if they disagree with the causes.

“I think the temperature rose between 1700 and 2000,” Grassley said. “You can measure that. But in the last 10 years, there’s been no increase. So I guess we need a longer trend. And we need more scientific certainty to the extent which it’s natural and to the extent which it’s man-made.”

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