Washington Post Claims Climate Change ‘Killing Farm Belt’ – As Crops Set Records

The Washington Post published a September 18 article titled, “Climate change is killing the farm belt. With a little help, farmers can fix it.” In reality, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show crop yields are setting new records almost every year as the Earth continues its modest warming. The only thing being killed is truth at the expense of the Washington Post.

The author of the Post article writes, “The Great Plains is in the early throes of prolonged drought.” Then he goes on to claim it is becoming more difficult to grow corn in Kansas and Iowa.

Facts don’t lie however, and the data show neither claim is true.

Citing real-world data, Climate at a Glance Drought shows the United States is benefiting from fewer and less extreme drought events as the climate modestly warms. For instance in 2017 and 2019, the United States registered its smallest percentage of land area experiencing drought in recorded history. America is also undergoing its longest period in recorded history with fewer than 40 percent of the country experiencing “very dry” conditions (See Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Percentage of United States experiencing “very wet” (in green) and “very dry” (in yellow) conditions. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/temp-and-precip/uspa/wet-dry/0.

Also, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports with “high confidence” that precipitation has increased over mid-latitude land areas of the Northern Hemisphere (including the United States) during the past 70 years, while IPCC has “low confidence” about any negative trends globally.

Addressing the Washington Post’s specific concerns about Iowa and Kansas, there is no evidence of a long-term drought trend. Data from the United States Drought Monitor (USDM) does show as of September 15, much of Iowa was either abnormally dry or experiencing moderate or severe drought, but this is common as the state comes out of the warm dry summer months. Looking back, however, USDM did not record a single county in Iowa as abnormally dry from October 1, 2019 through May 5, 2020.

Concerning drought in Kansas, USDM data indicate only a small area in western Kansas has been abnormally dry since the beginning of 2020. Also, USDM data show even Western Kansas is not experiencing a multi-year long-term drought trend.

Which brings us to the Washington Post’s claims about collapsing corn production in Iowa and Kansas. Those claims are provably false.  Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show corn production in Iowa and Kansas, as is true for crop production in general across the United States over the past few decades, have been consistently setting records.

The USDA reports in 2019 Iowa’s corn production topped 2.58 billion bushels, an increase of 3 percent from the state’s 2.50 billion bushel yield in 2018. Also, Iowa has led the nation in corn production for the past 26 consecutive years, and 41 of the last 42 years.

Regarding Kansas, USDA reports Kansas’s corn crop in 2019 also set records topping 800.66 million bushels, a 25 percent increase in yield from 2018, and even surpassing the previous record yield of 699 million bushels, set in 2016. Yields per acre in Kansas were approximately 133 bushels per acre, an increase in 4 bushels per acre from 2018.

For the world as a whole, even as the Earth has warmed modestly, Climate at a Glance: Crop Production reports, “the 2019 global crop year brought record production of the important cereal crops; corn, wheat, and rice. This builds on previous records set nearly every year during the past decade.”

The same is true for crop yield in the United States, where,

“[a]lmost every important U.S. crop has set record yields per acre during the past three years, with most of the top 10 years in yields-per-acre occurring during the past decade. Each of the five record-high rice yields have occurred during the past five years. Each of the past nine years have produced top-10 all-time wheat yields,” writes meteorologist Anthony Watts citing USDA data.

To conclude, contrary to the Washington Post’s claims, real-world data show climate change has caused no measurable increase in drought across the Midwest or elsewhere in the United States, nor has climate change had a demonstrable negative impact on crop yields, in Iowa, Kansas or elsewhere in the United States or around the world – except perhaps to increase those crop yields.

H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. In addition to directing The Heartland Institute's Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, Burett puts Environment & Climate News together, is the editor of Heartland's Climate Change Weekly email, and the host of the Environment & Climate News Podcast.

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