In Perspective: Agriculture’s Achilles’ heal

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Colleen Scherer The plethora of reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Extension offices, agricultural economists and many others in August did not paint a pretty picture for agriculture as a result of the drought of 2012. More analysis of the long-term impact of this country’s worst drought in at least 50 years is still being determined.

Many of the ramifications include the increase in food prices, higher costs for feed, and low inventories of grain stocks over the next year.

On top of these hot button issues, the drought has renewed discussions in climate change. In early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report stating that July 2012 was the hottest on record since records started being kept in 1895. Federal scientists said July was the hottest month ever recorded in the Lower 48 states, breaking a record set during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. According to the Palmer Drought Severity Index, whose record spans the 20th Century, about 57 percent of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate-to-extreme drought. The last time drought was as extensive was in December 1956 when about 58 percent of the nation was in moderate-to-extreme drought.

As the crops have withered under the merciless heat and drought of 2012, people were left wondering if the drought pattern would break anytime soon. Many placed their hopes in a strengthening El Niño. However, it seems scientists keep pushing off its impact further and later into the year. Reports are mixed as to if or when the weather pattern for the Midwest will change enough to bring adequate precipitation.

Many in the Midwest know that weather here doesn’t stay the same very long. Climate change, however, is a tricky devil. It is altering expected patterns. No one drought can last forever; it will rain again in significant amounts again. Next spring may possibly even bring flooding. The problem is, we’ve become too focused on the here and now; rarely looking far ahead or far behind.

In the past, droughts such as the one we’ve been experiencing would have wiped out civilizations and toppled kingdoms. In fact, it did. Take, for example, the city of Mycenae. It was the center of the first great Greek civilization, which thrived between 1,600 and 1,100 BC. According to a report from New Scientist.com, after 1,000 BC, “many cities were abandoned, trade ceased and their writing system disappeared. Other nearby civilizations, including the Hittites and the New Kingdom of Egypt, also declined around the same time, a phenomenon known as the Late Bronze Age collapse. Studies of climatic indicators … suggest the Mediterranean cooled at this time, resulting in lower rainfall over the next four centuries. Some researchers think falling food production led to a decline in population and thus to the decline of civilizations in the region.”

Food production always has been linked to the cycles of weather. When the weather patterns change, civilizations change either by collapsing, moving or reinvigorating. This is a repeating pattern. Considering that many of the ancient civilizations existed for hundreds of years, it shows that no matter how advanced civilizations are, they still rely on weather because agriculture is the touchstone of life.

The question remains if the pattern of weather volatility will continue. Many meteorologists have suggested the volatility will continue and perhaps worsen.

Agriculture, for all its advances and modernization, is still fragile and reliant upon weather. What remains to be seen is if these weather patterns will wreak enough havoc to cause a domino effect against our civilization.


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