Drought Pits Big River against Big Ag

January 18, 2013 | 12:01 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

The ongoing Midwest drought has had many repercussions. They include the fact that the Mississippi River—sometimes called “The Big Muddy”—is muddier than usual this year, causing problems and massive anxiety about shipping on the river.

Barge traffic on the Mississippi River is threatened by low water levels. CC image courtesy of TeamSaintLouis on Flickr

It has been widely reported over the last several weeks (here, here, here, and here) that the water level on some drought-stricken stretches of the Mississippi is so low that barge traffic may grind to a halt. Last week saw members of Congress out on the river in Illinois, praising the Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to deepen the channel through rock removal, and pledging to press the White House to do more, if needed, to keep the waterway open to commerce. The Corps’ efforts, along with recent and forecast rains, make a closure seem less imminent—at least for the moment.

Still, waterways groups are anticipating billions in commodity losses in December and January due to the slowdown in river traffic. Among the commodities at risk of not making it to their destinations if the river shuts down are chemical fertilizers heading to Midwestern farm fields, and corn and other grains that are the products of those fields.

Big Ag Bites the Hand that Feeds It

There is a deep irony in the notion that big agribusiness is under threat from the Mississippi River. In fact, the Mississippi, its farm belt tributaries, and the Gulf of Mexico where the river empties have long suffered at the hands of industrial agriculture.

The annual U.S. corn crop is massive—97 million acres in 2012, the most since 1937, and most of that in the Midwest. Grown in the typical industrialized way, corn requires enormous quantities of added nitrogen fertilizer, but the plant only takes up about 50 percent of what is applied, with much of the rest washing out of the soil and into waterways. The effects on water quality have been well documented.

Opinion is divided as to how much corn farmers will plant in 2013, as corn is a notoriously thirsty crop as well, and suffered big losses from the past year’s drought. But there was evidence last fall that big seed companies like Pioneer were urging farmers not to change cropsget your corn seed orders in now!—and the USDA’s World Agricultural Outlook Board projects 97.2 million acres planted, up a little from last year. If growers do gamble on corn again this spring in response to continued high prices, they are likely to load on the fertilizer in the hopes of maximizing their yield. And if and when the rains come, much of that will find its way into the Mississippi.

More Corn, More Droughts, More Corn?

In a roundabout way, the emphasis on high-input industrial corn production also serves to exacerbate the climate/drought problem. Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas linked to climate change, and last spring chemists at UC Berkeley reported powerful evidence that increased fertilizer use is responsible for a corresponding increase in N20 levels in the atmosphere.

So, more drought may lead to more corn planting and more fertilizer use, which may lead to more global warming emissions and ultimately, more drought. A pretty vicious cycle.

The past year’s epic drought woke up a lot of folks to the reality of more frequent droughts and other severe weather due to continued climate change. Similarly, it may be dawning on the agribiz industry just how much they—and the rest of us—rely on the Mississippi and other waterways that run through America’s heartland.

The question is, what will we do to protect them?