Analysis: Iowa floods and changing times

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  June 16, 2008 at 4:33 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- The record floods sweeping the Midwest may also sweep away Republican deniers of global warming, send food prices soaring even higher and put Sen. Barack Obama in the White House.

The unprecedented flooding in Iowa so far has been mercifully light on casualties, but in economic terms, it could not have come at a worse time.

The Bush administration's eagerness to promote the growing of corn to be converted into ethanol has had zero effect on global oil prices, which hit a new record spike of nearly $140 a barrel Monday. The corn-for-ethanol policy also has totally failed to prevent record prices of more than $4 a gallon for gasoline across the United States.

But by diverting 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop from food production to ethanol, and transferring growing resources to corn for ethanol and away from wheat, it had ensured record and soaring food prices for the U.S. consumer, too.

The floods also come when elasticity of supply for corn and wheat was already dangerously tight in world food markets. Most Americans do not know that their country enjoys the same crucial and favored position in the world food market that Saudi Arabia enjoys in global oil production. The United States is the key swing producer for the entire world. It is the largest exporter of food, especially wheat and corn, on the planet, followed by the European Union and Brazil.

Even before the floods, U.S. farmers were producing at close to maximum capacity for the global food market, which had been hit also by decisions in Europe and Brazil to switch resources from food production to corn-for-ethanol production. (At least for Brazil, this decision made more economic sense, since sugar cane converted to ethanol has far more energy potential than the vastly energy-inefficient corn ethanol grown in Iowa and elsewhere in the United States.)

The floods also come at a devastating time because they follow several seasons of drought in Australia, and that drought, while thankfully far from catastrophic so far, has had massive impact in reducing Australia's grain production and exports and adding to the soaring food prices around the world, especially in the Middle East and developing nations in Africa and elsewhere.

The floods are also very bad news in the short term for Republican presidential front-runner Sen. John McCain of Arizona and in the long run for the Democratic standard-bearer, Obama of Illinois, as well.

Both McCain and Obama advocate a far more "green" national policy for the United States, with a far greater active emphasis on combating global warming, than incumbent President George W. Bush does. But McCain represents the incumbent Republican Party, and conservative Republicans, whose power base has always been in the heartland, have been in the forefront of those denying the reality of global warming and the effects it has had. The political impact of the Midwest floods, therefore, looks certain to increase the growing sense across the American heartland that global warming is real, hitting them hard, and that a change from the long-term complacent GOP attitudes toward the problem is long overdue.

With Obama already leading McCain by margins of 6 percent to 7 percent in major national polls, that kind of boost for Obama as the obvious candidate for "change" looks likely to hit McCain hard.

In the long run, the boost to food prices and the constraints on grain production that the Midwest flooding is causing will cause headaches for whoever is elected president in November. If the abnormal weather conditions continue for another year or two, they may ensure that Obama is a one-term president, even if his policies succeed in other areas. But that will be cold comfort to McCain and the Republicans if they lose -- and lose the Midwest -- in November.

For the Midwest has replaced the South in the past two presidential elections as the key swing region of the United States in national elections, along with Florida. Therefore a weather-driven anti-incumbent reaction in that region is the last thing the GOP needs in a year when the party faces possibly its worst meltdown since 1964.

When Bob Dylan wrote "The Times They Are a-Changin'" more than 40 years ago, he included the lines: "Admit that the waters around you have grown/And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone."

And, of course, Dylan came from the Midwest.

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