HERE COME the effects of the long summer's drought. The producer price index for last month appeared Friday, showing a bounce upward chiefly because of rises in the prices of foodstuffs. These increases will move though the chain to the grocery stores and consumers over the fall and winter, lifting the inflation rate a little higher than the recent and relatively benign 4 percent.
This contribution to inflation is important, but perhaps there's another point here--to take a slightly longer view--that also deserves your attention. It is not entirely Pollyannish to observe that although American agriculture is now going through the worst drought in nearly half a century, the consequences so far are visible only to the statisticians and the professional traders. Everybody worries about how many percentage points the drought may contribute to inflation rates, but nobody worries about the country's basic food supply.
The bidding has tightened in the commodity exchanges. The prices of corn and soybeans are up 70 percent over this time last year, and, if the speculators who trade in futures are correct, they will rise a little more before another harvest comes in. Those crops are used largely to feed animals, and the price of meat will go up over the coming year. But wheat, which is mostly a winter crop, has not been so sharply affected. There's no reason to think that the drought will have any impact on nutrition. To the contrary, despite the damage that the drought has inflicted, there will continue to be a heavy flow of American agricultural exports abroad.
Where there is hunger in this country, it reflects a failure of social responsibility, not a failure of agricultural production. Where Americans are malnourished, it's not because there isn't a well-stocked grocery store nearby. There are many parts of the world where the severity of drought is measured in the death rates. In the United States, the consequences don't extend much beyond the price statistics.
Part of the explanation is an extraordinarily benevolent climate. Another part of it is the wealth that has built gigantic irrigation systems. Another crucial part of it is modern transportation, and particularly railroads. People with access to rail service may suffer dry summers, but they are unlikely to suffer famine. Without rails--in Europe as recently as the last century, and in much of the Third World today--villages have starved to death no more than a hundred miles from markets operating almost normally.
Even in a drought as severe as this summer's, the incidence is spotty across the continent. Railroads and highways have become the equalizers. Everybody pays a little more, but no one need go hungry. In a very dry season, that's worth celebrating.