Rainfalls Impact on Food Security is Broader Than You Might Realize

lightning struck on desert

We need rain.

I’ve farmed in Northeast Iowa for nearly half a century, and this summer is possibly the driest I’ve ever seen.

We may not have it as hot and dry as the Pacific Northwest right now, where a furnace-like heat wave has sparked raging fires, but it’s still pretty bad. A map published by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 83 percent of Iowa’s counties are now suffering from some level of drought.

Even when it rains it doesn’t rain. A recent weather forecast predicted three inches of precipitation, which would have been more than welcome. Instead, we got about three-tenths of an inch. To grow a decent crop of corn and soybeans, I need around two inches of rainfall per week.

On my farm, the presence or absence of regular rain can make the difference between a boom year or a bust.

One thing I’ve learned across the decades is that dry weather affects us all, often in unexpected ways. For producers like me, a lack of rain can mean a loss of income. For all of us as consumers, it can lead to higher food prices.

Those are the most obvious effects. Others are less visible but nearly as important. The weather in Central America, for instance, can influence food security everywhere, as a news article in the Wall Street Journal about the Panama Canal reminds us.

I’ve visited the Panama Canal several times, and I’ve written about its value and importance. It’s a marvel of engineering that involves elevating and lowering big ships as they move through the isthmus in a passage that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea).

The canal requires a lot of rain, too. That’s how it keeps large ships afloat.

Fortunately, Panama is basically a rainforest. Only four countries receive more rainfall each year.

Yet the canal is always thirsty.

“The Panama waterway depends on rainwater to fill reservoirs and lakes that provide trillions of gallons of freshwater to fill the locks, which empty into the sea after every use,” writes Journal reporter Santiago Perez. “Its daily water consumption is triple that of New York City. Every time a ship traverses the waterway, the canal uses between 200 million and 350 million gallons of water—enough to fill as many as 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.”

Four of the last seven years have been among the driest since 1950, according to the Panama Canal Authority. Efforts are underway to improve the infrastructure of the canal and conserve more water, but we’re at the mercy of rainfall: If Panama doesn’t get enough of it, then ships can’t move through the Panama Canal as they should.

We were reminded about the vulnerability of canals earlier this year, when a ship ran aground in the Suez Canal.

A common statistic points out that four percent of global trade passes through the Panama Canal. This obscures its importance to the United States. More than 10 percent of our foreign trade relies on it, including about 40 percent of the commerce between the eastern seaboard and Asia.

It matters a lot to me personally. After a harvest in Iowa, my crops often float down the Mississippi River and then travel through the Panama Canal as they head for China, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, and other destinations on the Pacific Rim.

Just as the amount of rainwater in Panama affects my farm in Iowa, a drought on my farm can drive up the price of food in Jakarta.

My challenges in Iowa usually involve too much rain rather than too little. Yet we can mitigate the bad effects of weather through technology and infrastructure. Drought-resistant crops developed with technology are better able to survive dry spells. Improving locks and dams along the Mississippi River and in Panama can keep maritime commerce moving.

These are choices: We can embrace the science that supports crops improved with GM technology as safe and healthy, and we can make the investments that keep our food supply and transportation systems resilient. Or we can forsake the tools that keep food abundant and available.

Meanwhile, the forecast says thunderstorms are on their way to my area. I sure hope so.

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and is currently serving as Vice Chairman.

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