Biofuels and Bad Weather

America’s Food-to-Fuel Gamble

June 16, 2008

Biofuels and Bad Weather: How Bad Weather Hurts Corn

Dr. Al Dutcher, State Climatologist for the University of Nebraska, in response to EWG questions about the possible impacts of the 2008 La Niña weather disturbances on the corn crop explained that bad weather can negatively affect corn at all stages of production and development during the spring, summer, and fall months. Bad weather such as too much rain, excessively soaked fields, and cold temperatures delayed corn planting in the Corn Belt this spring during the ideal planting months of April and May. In the months of May and June when the corn is supposed to be emerging from the ground, severe flooding is currently washing away many acres while standing water in fields has drowned many plants. These plants may not be able to be replanted if the fields don’t dry up quickly enough to get a new corn crop in before the summer months. In addition, farmers may not be able to find corn seed to re-plant. As soon as the fields dry out, the crop will likely have to fight off moisture-related disease and pests like root worm that can further wipe out whole fields. By the time summer rolls around, key pollination stages of development called tasseling and silking are highly sensitive to drought conditions that would further hurt crop yields and lower crop acreage. And finally, in the fall, the delays from the spring might force the already weakened crop to withstand a fall frost before harvest. According to Mr. Dutcher, what’s going on right now in the central states with excess rain and flooding is analogous to the history-making flooding events of 1993. Back in May 1993, there was excess soil moisture, high precipitation, and flooding in the upper Corn Belt states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Iowa). Yield reductions then (about 24 percent) due to the excess water were nearly identical in magnitude to losses from the historic 1988 drought (28 percent). Economist Bill Lapp said on the press call,

“Of all the years to worry about, this would be the king pin of those years. We’re seeing a very volatile market right now. The big challenge will be to get through this growing season and then additional corn acres will need to be found in 2009.”

Dr. Taylor pointed out on the press call that a lot of faith is put into the new hybrid corn varieties that are meant to withstand non-ideal weather conditions. He cautions, however, that “a bad year (in weather) will still cut the yield in half” despite these new technologies.