As far as I know, the only famines among white settlers in the United States occurred back in the 1600's. The availability of land (just steal it from natives, or buy a parcel from someone who did) and the agricultural techniques available even in the 18th century meant that food was usually abundant and limited only by one's wallet. There were crop failures on a local scale, and lean times, and disruptions from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and even the Dust Bowl, but they did not amount to national famines.
That could change, and sooner than you think, if you crunch the numbers. The current drought, spreading over much of the nation, makes it worth thinking about.
The United States is no longer an agricultural nation. The human population is currently around 315 million. Over the last decade the dollar value of U.S. food imports and exports, while fluctuating year to year, has drifted from a surplus of exports to a surplus of imports. While our nation ships a lot of grain to China and other countries, we import a lot of food too, mainly from Mexico and Canada.
This year's drought has hit the corn crop particularly hard. Still, the current estimate is that corn production will be around 10.8 billion bushels. That sounds like a lot, but it is less than 4 bushels per person (a bushel is 8 gallons, or 56 pounds of shelled corn). Usually 40% goes to producing ethanol. Much of the rest goes to feed for meat animals, including exports to China. But a lot goes straight to feed humans in the United States everything from corn chips to corn syrup.
The key figure to watch is ending inventories. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's report on August 10, the ending inventory this year will be about 650 million bushels. That is down over 500 million bushels in a single year.
Now suppose the same thing happens to corn next year. Subtract another 500 million bushels from this years' inventory of 650 million bushels. That would leave an inventory of 150 million bushels. A third year straight of crop failure would mean famine.
Corn is not the only major crop, but drought is not the only problem. Higher temperatures can also lead to higher losses from superweeds (the ones that Monsanto helped create be killing their weaker ancestors), insects, and an assortment of plant diseases.
2012 will, hopefully, go down in history as a particularly bad year, not to be repeated anytime soon. We can't count on that.
Given how fat many Americans are, and that our diet is quite varied, you might still want to discount the risk of famine. After all, under the scenario above, even during the third year of disaster we could get 10 to 11 billion bushels of corn. We might produce less ethanol, and feed corn directly to hungry people, instead of to pigs, chickens, and cows. Maybe Canada, Russia, or Brazil will have a bumper year, and we'll just import corn for our tortillas. Maybe the President will proclaim that gluten-free diets are nonsense and people should eat more wheat products again.
Maybe the relatively affluent, the top 30% or 20% or so, will keep eating meat. Maybe the ethanol producers will put their profit first and not give up their share of corn.
Maybe production of corn will be even lower next year, and wheat will decline too. Why? Because the soil will be dry going into the new year, and irrigation sources will be depleted. And maybe the fat people will take no pity on those who are already lean: maybe they will be strong enough to shove the starving aside when the delivery trucks pull up to the supermarkets.
As the population of the U.S.and the globe increases, and as weather gets more erratic and generally warmer, it might seem like a good idea to have a plan to cope with ugly scenarios. The Free Market won't magically make food appear out of parched fields.
Barack Obama, as usual, is sucking his thumb, moistening it in case he needs to measure the political wind. Instead of turning off the ethanol machine and creating a rational plan to prevent famine in the long run (like: more birth control), he is worrying about getting re-elected. Ditto for Congress. If I had not studied American history I would say this lot is the worst bunch of idiots ever. In fact they are typical mediocrities.
Our only hope is that rains will return, and it will keep on raining until at least 2016, when we might get some better nominees for Congress and the Presidency.