When it comes to history, sequels are generally bad news. And the Dust Bowl would be a particularly bad event to have a second go-round of. The last time around, it rendered half a million Americans homeless, forced another 3.5 million to move looking for work, and eroded 100 milllion acres of land. We can all generally agree that that sounds like a suckfest, but get ready for the bad news: The sequel might be on the way, and it’ll be even worse.
Researchers at the University of Chicago decided to see how resistant modern agriculture would be to Dust Bowl-like conditions, which essentially means severe drought. Really, this should have been a cakewalk: In the ’30s, we didn’t understand the prairie ecosystem, irrigation was still a growing technology, and our ability to predict weather was rudimentary at best. Plus there was a decade-long natural disaster in this area that has left scars in communities across America that are still healing, so everybody was smart about their crops and land use, right?
Nope. It turns out that crops have been engineered for abundance, not resilience, and if a new drought hits, the crop losses would be similar to the Dust Bowl, with 40% of corn and soy crops lost and 30% of wheat crops vanishing. But even if the weather stays stable, rising global temperatures will lead to more losses. By 2050, when the Earth’s temperature is expected to rise by four degrees, 80% of current crops could be withering in the fields.
What’s really changed, though, is who’d be most directly hurt. America doesn’t eat most of the crops it consumes, instead turning them into money. The vast majority of our corn goes either to making biofuels or animal feed; much of the corn that’s actually eaten is shipped overseas, and most of the corn we eat in the US is in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which we’d probably be better off without. We export half of our wheat as well, and only eat about a third of it. We also export half our soy products, and most of what we keep is used for either animal feed or as food additives.
Here’s some more bad news, just in case the idea of another dust bowl hasn’t shaken you up already: most of the country is in some form of drought, and it’s not getting better any time soon. Essentially, we have an incipient economic disaster at home and a much larger food crisis abroad, and it seems, more or less, to only be a question of when the crisis begins rather than if it will happen. And we’ll remind you that food insecurity is one of the best predictors of political unrest; the tragic Syrian civil war has its roots in a situation very similar to the Dust Bowl.
The answer to this problem, beyond reducing greenhouse gases and getting them out of the atmosphere, involves switching to hardier crops like sorghum, moving production of corn, soy, and wheat further north, and genetically engineering tougher crops, possibly at the expense of yield. Realistically, it will also mean changing, drastically, what we eat. We’ll have to eat less meat and eat different kinds of meat. You might notice that the majority of American crops go not to stomachs but to ranches and farms to feed livestock. It’s a lot cheaper to raise poultry and fish, feed-wise, than it is to breed cows and hogs. We’ll have to get rid of fillers like corn syrup from our food, and soy-based protein shakes and the like may leave the shelves. But if that means fuller stomachs and safer people around the world, it’d be a small price to pay.