High grain costs, caused by severe drought, are hitting dinner tables from Guatemala to China. But the world has learned valuable lessons since the food shocks of 2008. Will it be enough to prevent social unrest?
Our story begins near Prairie City, Iowa, in the fields of Gordon Wassenaar, who has been coaxing food out of some of the world's richest earth for 57 years. Normally, Mr. Wassenaar is able to harvest about 200 bushels of corn per acre from his land – bin-bursting crops that are sent off to feed people in places as disparate as Michigan and Malawi.
Not this year.
As he walks the 1,500 acres that he farms, Wassenaar occasionally pauses to finger a stalk and peel back the husk, revealing corn that is shriveled and stunted. He figures that the headstrong drought of 2012 will cost him about 40 percent of his harvest.
"It's not that we're gonna go out of business overnight," he says. "But what we're worried about is next year. We've got to get some moisture."
The lean yields on Wassenaar's land, and those of other grain farmers across America's Great Breadbasket, are ricocheting around the world, from Guatemala, to Indonesia, to China. One of the worst droughts in a half century – Wassenaar says it's the most severe he's seen since the year he began farming, in 1955 – is raising prices for some of the world's most important foodstuffs.
The effects are being exacerbated by churlish weather in other parts of the world – notably in the big wheat-producing areas of Russia, Ukraine, and other countries that hug the Black Sea, where a more moderate drought has hit, as well as in Australia, the globe's No. 2 wheat exporter, where below-average rainfall is expected to reduce the November harvest by more than 10 percent.
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