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Drought leads to ethanol backlash, finicky farm animals, and higher food prices for you

This is what corn futures have done over the summer. I know it looks like the same graph we've shown you before, but it isn't. The key difference is the number at the top right. It used to be a high of $7.50. Now corn is predicted to sell for more than $8.00 per bushel in December -- an increase of 60 percent since spring.

Corn futures from CME Group. Click to embiggen.

The reason for the price spike, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: the drought. Less corn production, higher corn prices. We've noted that these price increases (and, in fact, expectations of higher prices) will impact other foods over the short- and long-term. But the meat industry is already feeling the pinch this summer -- both because of concerns about corn prices and because animals have less of an appetite during a drought. Smithfield Foods is hedging against increased prices by importing corn from Brazil, a "highly unusual" step.

Read more: Climate Change, Corn, Food

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Half of Americans drink at least one glass of soda every day

Gallup has discovered a great divide in American society: There are those of us who drink soda and those of us who do not, and the country's split almost exactly down the middle. Soda drinkers make up 48 percent of the country's population. These are the people who drink at least one glass of soda every day -- half of them drink more than two.

Then there are the rest of us -- 52 percent of Americans only drink soda every once in awhile:

Read more: Corn, Food

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The lesser of two evils: Why food advocates are pushing for a farm bill they don’t love

What’s that sound? It’s the clock ticking as the timeline for this year’s farm bill process begins to run out. The current bill expires Sept. 30, and we now have less than two weeks before Congress’ month-long recess begins on August 3.

So what's the holdup? Now that both the Senate and House Agriculture committees have passed their versions of the bill, you’d think they’d get to work hashing it out, right? Wrong. Instead the Republican-controlled House is stalling.

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A dry run from hell: Drought hits the smallest farms the hardest

There is something distinctly pathos-inducing about a corn plant dying of thirst. Maybe that’s why coverage of the 2012 drought has focused on commodity crops, especially corn. Reading the reports, you almost expect Tom Joad to step out from between the brown-baked stalks, as if Steinbeck were writing the copy.

For non-commodity farms -- a category that includes many diverse, organic, and locally supported operations -- the story is about much more than maize. A month into summer, the drought has walloped small Midwestern farmers, the very same farmers already struggling to survive a weak economy, a market dominated by rapacious agribusinesses, and, oh yeah, climate change.

For one thing, the ferocious drought has exposed a great lack of irrigation equipment on small farms. In a typical year, summer rain is common in the Midwest, and many of the region’s fruit growers have never irrigated their orchards. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farmers also tend to lack the infrastructure to water everything they grow.

“You drive around the countryside and whoever doesn’t have irrigation doesn’t have much of a crop,” says Tom Kercher, who grows tree fruit and vegetables in Goshen, Ind.

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Sudden desert: Midwest drought is bad news for farmers and eaters

Photo by Claire-Marie Harris.

What do you say to a corn stalk ravaged by a heat wave?

Nothing. Its ears are stunted.

Corn growers throughout the Midwest this summer are facing an extraordinary ordeal that climate scientists have predicted could become the new ordinary. This year’s growing season has been consistently dry and warm, leading to stunted stalk growth, and many of the corn-growing states are now sweltering through record-breaking heat during a critical stage of kernel development with nary a storm in sight.

As The New York Times reported this week, “the sweltering temperatures and a lack of rain are threatening what had been expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.” The business journalists -- whose audience is those who gamble on corn’s futures -- have also been reporting the story.

“About 50 percent of the corn-producing area of the Midwest is running significant moisture shortages,” says David Streit, an agricultural meteorologist and founder of Commodity Weather Group, which advises clients in the farming and energy sectors.

That’s a problem, because the plants have entered their pollination phase. That’s the “very critical time,” Streit says, when corn silks are pollinated and begin to grow into juicy kernels. But without water, growers are left with little more on their stalks than withering husks.

“When you have that kind of heat at this critical pollination period,” he adds, “you can lose several bushels an acre per day.”

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Parched Midwest could mean smaller Gulf dead zone

Here's last year's Gulf dead zone. How big will this year's be? (Photo courtesy of NOAA.)

If you’re an underwater creature living in the Gulf of Mexico, summer is not your friend. All spring long, rain falls on America’s farmland and floods the waterways around factory animal farms, creating a steady stream of nitrogen from excess fertilizer and animal waste that heads down the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf. These nutrients create algae that sinks, decomposes, and eats oxygen. The result is an oxygen-free area or underwater desert -- a dead zone.

This year, one study from the University of Michigan estimates the Gulf dead zone might be a lot smaller than it has been in recent years -- a mere 1,200 square miles, compared to 6,765 square miles in 2011.

If this turns out to be the case, it won’t be the result of improved agricultural practices, but rather the result of what Reuters calls the Corn Belt’s “driest season in 24 years.” The article continues:

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‘Monsanto Protection Act’ would keep GMO crops in the ground during legal battles

It's that exciting time of the year again when the Senate and House Appropriations Committees get together to hash out the annual agriculture budget. I know, right? Really fun stuff.

This year, in addition to the usual underfunding of legislation that could make the food system more sustainable, the appropriations process has become especially charged, thanks to a one-paragraph addition called the “farmer assurance provision.” The provision -- which the agriculture committee approved last week, but has yet to go to the full House -- would allow farmers to plant and grow GMO crops before they’ve been deemed safe. Or, more accurately, if it passes, farmers will be able to plant these crops while legal battles ensue over their safety.

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Tiny corn could be the next big thing

"Honey, I shrunk the corn." Scientist Burkhard Schultz examines his miniature corn stalks in the lab. (Photos c/o Purdue University.)

If modern baseball can teach kids anything about science, it’s that steroids make things huge. We’ve all seen players with tree-trunk sized arms blast baseballs out of ballparks thanks to steroid hormones that bulk up muscle cells.

But what’s good for athletic prowess isn’t always good for farmers. Take corn -- a crop we grow on 70 million acres of the nation’s farmland. Naturally occurring veggie steroids give corn long stalks, which require lots of water and fertilizer to grow.

When Purdue University researchers set out to miniaturize corn in an effort to help conserve water and fertilizers and reduce pesticide use, they searched for ways to do the opposite of what BALCO did for Barry Bonds. “If you take away the steroid from a plant,” said lead researcher Burkhard Schulz, a self-described plant architect, “you receive a very small plant.”

Similar results are possible with wheat, barley, rice, and other cereal crops, according to Schulz. And work is already underway to produce smaller sorghum.

Read more: Corn, Food

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What humans hath wrought: What happens when we mess with Mother Nature?

Click to embiggen. (Photos c/o the Center for PostNatural History.)

Want to learn about dinosaurs and elephants and mountain gorillas? Head to your local natural history museum. But if you’re looking to study up on genetically engineered corn, lab rats, or Sea-Monkeys, get thee to the north end of Pittsburgh. There, on a rough little commercial strip with a bike shop, a tattoo parlor, and art galleries, you’ll find the Center for PostNatural History, an outfit run by a local art professor for the express purpose of exploring all the stuff the natural history museums leave out.

Rich Pell, the scruffy proprietor who teaches electronic media classes in the art school at nearby Carnegie Mellon University, sat behind the counter on a recent afternoon wearing a T-shirt from the Smithsonian decorated with a diagram of the tree of life. He explained that his mini-museum focuses on “intentional human changes to the biological world.” Read: dog and chicken breeding, genetically modified fruit flies, and everything in between.

"In a post-natural family tree, the common ancestor always leads back to a person," he explains -- "a breeder, a hobbyist," or a white-coated lab tech.

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FDA: High-fructose corn syrup will not be called ‘corn sugar’

The image the Corn Refiners Association might have hoped to conjure with the term "corn sugar."

There has been a lot of back and forth about real and perceived differences between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) over the years -- including here at Grist, where Tom Laskawy has explored the contentious topic at length. And while the science is definitely still unfolding, the fact that the Corn Refiners Association has shown a strong interest in blurring the line between the two is certainly compelling reason to suspect there are, in fact, some noteworthy differences.

As of Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees. The agency released an official response to the Corn Refiners Association’s 2010 request to refer to the substance as “corn sugar” with a resounding no. The reasons they gave read as benignly technical, but also hint at the differences in the kinds of processes needed to make sugar and HFCS (one being a highly industrial, synthetic process resulting in a food that could not exist in nature if we wanted it to). The statement reads:

 … the use of the term “corn sugar” for HFCS would suggest that HFCS is a solid, dried, and crystallized sweetener obtained from corn. Instead, HFCS is an aqueous solution sweetener derived from corn after enzymatic hydrolysis of cornstarch, followed by enzymatic conversion of glucose (dextrose) to fructose.

The report also points out that the name “corn sugar” is already spoken for, and is used on food labels to describe dextrose.

Read more: Corn, Food