The Hidden Costs of Drought

Food System
Mar 8th, 2013 | By Amy Leibrock

Recent winter storms have brought a whiff of relief to some areas of the United States that are still suffering from lingering drought conditions. While the drought is far from over, major improvement has been seen on the Mississippi River, where barge shipping recently returned to normal levels.

For months, the mighty river, which ships 60% of all grain exported from the U.S., has been dangerously low. Barges have had to to lighten their loads and reduce traffic in order to pass through shallow waters, and the shipping industry was bracing for the possibility of a complete shutdown if conditions didn’t improve. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but the looming crisis highlighted one of the hidden ways severe weather events like droughts can affect commodities like food and fuel.

River barge shipping, it turns out, is a pretty efficient means of transport, and slowdowns can drive commodity prices up quickly, as John Schwartz from the New York Times pointed out in January:

> “The towboats pushing their tightly grouped clusters of barges up and down the river move billions of dollars a month worth of grain for export and fertilizer for Midwestern farmers, coal and fuel for power plants and many other items….The load aboard one fully loaded 15-barge tow, if transferred to a train, would require more than 200 rail cars. Try to move the goods by truck, and you would need a fleet of more than 1,000. And when the river is running well, tow boats might push 24 barges or even more.”

So a drought not only means food production goes down; it also means it costs more to get that food where it needs to go, spiking prices even more and increasing demand for transportation fuel — a combination that could upset the already precarious balance of food and fuel. That’s why Sustainable America is committed to reducing the interconnectivity of the food and fuel systems by supporting things like local food production and diversified fuel supplies that will leave us less vulnerable to droughts and other inevitable weather events.

Tagged: food prices, food supply, food security, the cost of food, food vs fuel, 2012 drought, transportation infrastructure, fuel efficient transportation, Drought, food versus fuel, drought 2012, food system, food, Food & Farms

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