Inside Story Americas
Are we heading for a global food crisis?
As drought takes its toll on US crops, we ask if it is time to reassess the global food market.
Last Modified: 26 Jul 2012 04:54

For weeks the US has been suffering its most extensive drought in half a century. And meteorologists expect the severe conditions to continue.

"The monopolies have created dependency and they control the global [food] market … and you have tremendous market power concentrated into just a very few hands … they will hoard, they'll hold back grain, and they buy low and sell high."

- Eric Holt-Gimenez, the executive director of FoodFirst

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an animation showing how the drought has expanded since the beginning of this year, particularly affecting the US heartland, known as the breadbasket of the country and the world.

The US dominates the global corn market but the US Department of Agriculture has predicted a sharp drop in corn exports, with prices for corn and soybeans already hitting record highs.

At least 87 per cent of all US corn and soybean crops are grown in drought-stricken regions.

Corn is what is called a mega-crop used in the production of everything from meat to cereal to sugary drinks and fuel. As a result, rising prices have the potential to lead to another global food crisis.

"What a globalised food system allows is to source food from many different places …. An open, globalised trading system provides a lot of additional security rather than relying on your internal market."

- Charlotte Hebebrand from the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council

The 2008 food crisis was triggered by a sharp rise in the cost of wheat and rice. That sparked protests in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

It will be months before the impact of the US drought is fully known but farmers are already bracing for the worst.

On this episode of Inside Story Americas we ask: Will the US drought lead to another global food crisis? And what does it tell us about the current structure of the world food system?

Joining the discussion with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Francesco Femia, the founding director of the Center for Climate and Security; Charlotte Hebebrand, the chief executive of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council; and Eric Holt-Gimenez, the executive director of FoodFirst, also known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy.

"What we're likely to see over the next 10 to 20 years is more extreme weather of this kind. It's difficult to say that this particular drought [in the US] was due to climate change .... [But] we need to be very conscious of some shocks coming out of climatic changes."

Francesco Femia from the Center for Climate and Security


  • About 60 per cent of continental US is experiencing drought conditions
  • The US is the world's largest corn producer, and provides up to 60 per cent of the world's food aid
  • The price of corn has increased by 34 per cent in the last month
  • The US government says nearly 40 per cent of the corn crop is in poor condition
  • Most US farmers have crop insurance in case of losses


  • The US is ranked as the most food-secure nation in the world, with an average of 14 per cent of household expenditure being spent on food. Second is Denmark, followed by Norway
  • The most food-secure nations benefit from ample resources, high incomes and subsidies for farmers
  • The least food-secure nations are in sub-Saharan Africa, with the DR Congo scoring most poorly with 70 per cent of household income there spent on food despite the country's huge agricultural potential
  • Chad and Burundi suffer from similar circumstances


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