Mark Twain remarked that people talk about the weather but never do anything about it.
This summer's severe drought, a symptom of the chaotic climate created by carbon excess, reminds us how completely the weather gods are in control at this point.
And how negligent governments, which have the ability to do something about the consequences of weather, have been. Agencies overseeing our food system are awash in ignorance, and it's taken a heat wave to call our attention to that fact. It's almost impossible to think of a crisis of this scope arising from predictable factors that has been subject to so little forethought by public authorities.
The drought hit corn the hardest, putting harvests at risk across Ontario and the American Midwest and jacking up prices. "Corn shock" is poised to have consequences comparable to those of the oil shock of the 1970s.
Crop failure is driving farmers to do a rain dance for government money. But assistance to corn growers should be linked to programs that help them recover from corn addiction and move to crops that support public health and the environment.
Once the sacred crop of the Maya and other indigenous peoples of the Americas, corn has since become the sacred crop of the junk food industry. A subsidy to corn is a subsidy for empty calories, as our dependence on high-fructose corn syrup for pop, cookies, cake, flavoured yogurt, bread, canned fruit and salad dressings demonstrates.
Across the continent, corn is treated as the most favoured crop, receiving irrational subsidies to support corn ethanol for motor fuel despite the fact that growing it uses as much fossil fuel as corn fuel displaces from the highway. In Ontario, as much as 30 per cent of corn goes into automobile fuel tanks - a bottomless pit for a crop that's overproduced beyond reason.
Corn producers enjoy this and other party favours because the crop mostly provides fast feed for livestock, whose stomachs evolved to digest grass rather than calorie-full but low-nutrient corn.
Corn, aside from the one or two per cent grown for corn on the cob, is a negative crop. It's high-carb and low-nutrient as food, and drought-intolerant to boot. At the same time, it's a favourite of agribusiness because producers have to buy so much fertilizer and pesticide as well as planting and harvesting machines and genetically engineered seeds.
Beyond this, corn, like other basic commodities, is the object of intense speculation by traders thanks to deregulation in the 90s that led to price volatility over and above that created by unpredictable weather. The traded price of a bushel shot from about $5 in the spring of this year to about $8 now.
Despite the fact that we're in an era of climate instability, governments continue to favour limitation of crop varieties. Out of thousands of available food crops, the world's population now relies on about 10 plants for about 80 per cent of our calories.
The top sellers among world crops - corn, wheat, rice, sugar and potatoes - are notable water guzzlers and usually big-time degraders of water as a result of fertilizer and pollution runoff. And everywhere, including drylands in the west and Ontario, traditional drought-tolerant crops like nutrient-rich quinoa, amaranth and millet are marginalized.
Notice that no government agencies or ministries in Canada integrate responsibility for both food and water, even though (you heard it here first) food is quite hard to grow without water.
This is especially important when it comes to corn, which can't be pollinated unless there's adequate moisture during an extremely brief "breeding season" of two weeks: making it not exactly a prime candidate for today's weather.
Certainly, there's no reason to offer more than government-supported crop insurance to corn growers who want to stick with that crop. Nor should we subsidize consumers to offset rising food prices; that money would mainly flow to the speculators who drove prices up in the first place.
Nor, finally, should we starve funding for measures to reduce global warming (which should henceforth be known as global drying) and protect the citizens of the future from climate chaos.
The fundamentals are wrong, not just the climate. It's time to end the dry spell in responsible public food policy.
25.3 Percentage of total Ontario farm acreage taken up by corn
60 Percentage of corn crop used for animal feed
40 Percentage of corn used for industrial purposes including fructose and ethanol.
1 to 2 Percentage that ends up as food on your dinner plate
A bushel of corn yields 15 kilograms of sweetener OR
11.37 litres of fuel ethanol
5.17 kg of gluten feed
1.36 kg of gluten meal
700 ml bottle of corn oil
Sources: Grain Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Corn Producers' Association