Sustainable America Blog

The Hidden Costs of Drought

Barge on the Mississippi River

Photo Credit: Roger Smith via Compfight cc

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.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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