European agriculture hit hard by climate change and drought

BARCELONA – As Europe suffers an extreme drought worsened by climate change that has dried up rivers and left millions suffocating in triple-digit heat this summer, farmers across the continent are issuing warnings about the crop losses.

“Our vines are suffering,” said winemaker Xavier Collart Dutilleul, who together with his wife Pascale runs Château Mazeris Bellevue near Saint-Emilion in southwestern France. In the absence of rain, the parched clay-rich soil of the organic vineyard is “almost as hard as cement,” he told Yahoo News, and he predicted that his harvest, which typically yields enough for 35 000 bottles, will drop by 30% this year.

In northern Italy, there has been little snow in the winter this year and even less rain in the spring, and extreme summer temperatures have evaporated what little moisture is left. Just as rivers across Europe have nearly dried up, the Po River, a major source of irrigation in the fertile river valley, is just a trickle and the normally marshy rice fields it irrigates are brown and cracked.

“We don’t have water,” Fabrizio Rizzotti, a seventh-generation rice farmer, told Yahoo News. “Plants shrivel up and die in the fields.” This year, he expects his harvest of carnaroli rice, favored for risotto, to be 30% of what it was last year.

This year, the grape harvest from Château Mazeris Bellevue in Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac, France, is down 30%.

This year, the grape harvest from Château Mazeris Bellevue in Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac, France, is down 30%. (Pascale Collart Dutilleul/Château Mazeris Bellevue)

In Spain, which supplies almost half of the world’s olive oil, Agriculture Minister Luis Planas warned last week that “this year’s olive harvest could be significantly lower than previous ones.” The Spanish Association of Young Farmers and Ranchers (Asaja) predicts that olive yields will fall by a third. “We are in a very bad situation, with a fundamental water deficit in our agriculture,” José-Luis Miguel, technical coordinator for Spain’s largest agricultural group COAG, told Yahoo News. He also said restrictions on irrigation and low rainfall meant that “many crops could not be planted or had to be replaced by others with less water requirements”. Grain production, for its part, is down 25%, he said.

“What’s happening this year is very scary,” said winemaker Ton Mata, third-generation owner and CEO of the Recaredo vineyard in Spain’s cava region. Alt Penedès, told Yahoo News. “We have little rain and a very long dry and hot period with three heat waves. We find that the grapes are very small and weigh less. Even if the harvest has only just begun, it is certain that the yield will be down by 20 to 40%.

This summer, Europe is breaking all sorts of records, from high temperatures to low rainfall. Nearly two-thirds of the territory of the 27 countries of the European Union are facing drought or are about to enter it. The European Drought Observatory said this week that 47% of EU territory was on alert while 17% was “on alert”, meaning vegetation is stressed due to lack of water. water. The countries most affected — France, Spain and Italy, as well as Germany — are those which produce the bulk of European food, which means that the prices of European products commodities are sure to soar this fall and winter.

Climate expert Jorge Olcina, professor of regional geographic analysis at Spain’s University of Alicante, told Yahoo News that what’s happening across Europe is “further evidence of the global warming process” – and he expects it to continue. “The trend is clear. We have failed to reduce the level of greenhouse gases we release into the Earth’s atmosphere and the warming process continues its unstoppable process.”

One of the paddy fields has dried up and can no longer be cultivated in Vespolate, Italy.

One of the paddy fields has dried up and can no longer be cultivated in Vespolate, Italy. (Davide Bertuccio for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Barcelona hydrologist Jesús Carrera, a research professor at Spain’s National Research Council, predicts “a sharp reduction in rainfall across the Mediterranean”. But the main problem, he said, is not only “there will be longer and more intense droughts, but there will also be very wet periods. So obviously the way to deal with that is save water during wet periods”.

It’s not just the scorching summer heat and water shortages that are cutting food supplies – it’s the general weird weather that has plagued Europe for more than two years that worries farmers and climatologists . “The last few years have been crazy,” said Montse Boldú Giménez, an agricultural consultant based in the Penedès.

The seasons when it usually rains are rather dry; when the sky opens, they pour torrents which carry away the topsoil. A late spring frost destroyed many fruit crops in Spain, and hailstorms, like the one a few weeks ago that wiped out a vineyard next to Château Mazeris Bellevue, are becoming more frequent. “The hailstones were as big as eggs,” said winemaker Collart Dutilleul.

Last year, a blizzard hit central Spain, blanketing Toledo’s olive groves in 5 inches of snow, and two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures killed a quarter of the area’s oldest olive trees.

“We have been observing changes for many years, but now it is more evident. You can see it everywhere”, José Antonio Peche Marín-Lázaro, general manager of premium olive oil producer Casas de Hualdo, which lost 250 acres of olive trees in the storm, told Yahoo News.

He said locals who are in their 80s or 90s and who have worked in the fields all their lives often tell him they don’t remember the weather in recent years. “And when you look at the olive trees here in this region, some of which are 200 years old, that have survived for such long periods of time, but now this weather is threatening their survival, it definitely means something has changed,” he added.

Climate change is forcing many Europeans to rethink centuries-old farming practices.

“Some crops will have to change their production cycles, and irrigation systems should be improved to increase their efficiency,” said Olcina, who sees climate change not only as “the most important problem we face,” but also “as an opportunity”. to do things right.”

    the dry bed of the Po River;  parts of Italy's longest river and largest freshwater reservoir have dried up due to the worst drought in 70 years.

A view shows the dry bed of the Po River during the worst drought in 70 years, in Malcantone, near Ferrara, Italy. (Gabriele Pileri/Reuters)

Indeed, some food producers are already beginning to change. Casas de Hualdo installed underground moisture sensors in its olive groves and installed a more efficient underground drip irrigation system and solar panels to power it. The Recaredo de Mata vineyard tries different grape varieties better suited to the relentless sun; it is a question of changing the rootstocks for varieties “which need less water and which sink deeper into the ground” to allow the vine to have more water. Recaredo also uses biodynamic practices, with ground cover in its vineyard that encourages more worms to aerate the soil. At Château Mazeris Bellevue, we are also testing different grape varieties that are more resistant to heat and drought.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook” and owner of an olive grove in Tuscany, isn’t at all worried about this summer’s dwindling harvest. Olives and grapes can survive droughts, she pointed out to Yahoo News, and vineyards have suffered disasters like the phylloxera wave this wiped out many French vineyards in the 1800s. “I think there will be lots of olive oil and lots of wine for my grandchildren,” she told Yahoo News. What worries him is how climate change will change their world. “They have to worry about staying cool in the summer and rising sea levels” – as well as droughts. “These are much more critical issues for me than olive oil and wine.”

Despite this tumultuous summer, hydrologist Carrera isn’t sure the public or politicians understand the need for change. “Society only reacts when it is hurt,” he observed. “That still doesn’t hurt enough.”