Drought and heatwaves put European farmers on the frontline for the climate

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Temperature records fell like dominoes in Europe last week. On Saturday June 18, 203 heat records for the month were broken or equaled in France alone, as well as 18 records for the hottest temperature at any time of the year. In many places, this unprecedented heat follows one of the driest winters ever. The resulting drought is a wake-up call for governments to help farmers become more resilient to climate change, food policy experts say. Ignoring it could have disastrous effects on food production.

East Africa has hardly had any rain for four years. Millions of people face severe water shortages. Food prices rose rapidly due to poor harvests and the impact of the war in Ukraine on grain exports. More than 18 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia live in acute food insecurity, not knowing when they wake up whether they will be able to eat that day. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the southwestern states of the United States face their worst drought in 1200 years. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the nation’s two largest reservoirs, have been experiencing drought conditions for more than 20 years and are now at their lowest levels on record. The reservoirs, part of a system that provides water to more than 40 million people, are only a quarter full.

The reasons for these dire situations are complicated, but scientists agree that human-induced climate change is making them worse. Emissions scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will not just cause global warming, but will cause warmer weather. extremes, including heat waves, floods and droughts.

The situation in Europe is not as drastic as in the United States and certainly nothing to do with the tragedy unfolding in East Africa. However, the trend is the same and food production is at the forefront. High energy costs and wheat shortages due to Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian exports have pushed up food prices. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) food price index showed that a basket of foodstuffs cost almost 23% more in May than in the same period. last year. Failed harvests would further drive up prices. Agronomists warned in May that France’s wheat crop could suffer severe damage due to widespread drought. France is the leading European producer of wheat and the country’s agriculture minister, Marc Fesneau, this week tried to reassure markets that the lack of rain would not mean a “dramatic” decline in winter grain production. Only after the combines arrive and do their job will analysts be able to judge whether Fesneau was right.

[See also: Are heatwaves the new normal?]

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Sylvie Wabbes is an agronomist and resilience advisor at FAO in Rome; she also runs a small family farm with her husband and two daughters north of the city. Three-quarters of Italian farms cover less than five hectares and, like many of them, the land of Wabbes supports a mix of activities: livestock, vegetables and olive, hazelnut and fruit trees. It sounds idyllic, but Wabbes says increasingly unpredictable weather means farming is getting complicated and she has to introduce measures she would normally advise farmers in hot low-income countries.

“We’ve seen big changes in weather patterns – it’s raining less, it’s less predictable when the rain will come and when it does rain it’s often sudden and heavy, causing soil erosion,” she says. It is normal in the Mediterranean for it to be rainy in winter and dry in summer, she explains. “The problem is when there is no rain in spring or at the end of winter and then you enter summer with no water supply and no moisture in the soil”, as this is the case this year. This winter was one of the driest Italy has seen in the last 65 years, with rainfall 80% below the seasonal average. Another problem is the increasing frequency of strange and sudden weather events. “Two weeks ago, a hailstorm destroyed my neighbour’s berry crop,” says Wabbes. “The situation is very complex. We face multiple risks and impacts on our lives and livelihoods.

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Peter Stott of the UK’s Met Office says Wabbes’ experiments match climate science, which shows that rainfall is decreasing in the Mediterranean, while winters farther north are getting wetter. “There will be more extremes,” he warns, “including an increasing risk of drought in the summer, even in places with wetter winter weather, as hotter days will increase evaporation.”

Jess Halliday of RUAF, a consortium of institutions working on sustainable agriculture, tells a similar story when trying to implement resilient farming techniques in low-income countries, only to find that climate change, combined with other shocks, makes similar practices necessary in Europe. Halliday lives in Nézignan-l’Évêque, a rural town about an hour from Montpellier in the south of France. She tells how a woman in her village started a chicken farm only to lose her birds to a fox attack. “Then a few years ago we had crazy temperatures and the chickens dropped dead from the heat and then Covid hit and the restaurants closed and she couldn’t sell her eggs. Now there is no more chicken farming.

The pandemic may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the heat wave had already pushed the farmer to breaking point, Halliday says. “Climate change affects the most vulnerable more because they lack adaptation techniques.” Indeed, FAO research shows that smallholder farmers, who produce around a third of the world’s food, are the hardest hit by multiple shocks and stresses.

Those least able to weather the “perfect storm” tend to be in the poorest countries, but even in Europe many farmers have little resilience built into their operations. While in the longer term drastic emission reduction policies are the only solution, in the short term, with the support of governments, farmers around the world can change their practices to better cope with a drying world. . Subsidies for efficient irrigation, better soil management to retain moisture, planting trees to create shade, growing fruit trees, choosing crops and livestock that are more resistant to periods of drought and intense heat, and storing, reusing and recycling rainwater can all help, says Wabbes. Farmers also need to be warned of extreme weather events so they can be better prepared, she adds.

“We won’t transform our food production overnight, but we can harness lessons learned from other crises,” says Halliday. “During the pandemic, we learned to do things differently, but policymakers still don’t see the need for long-term transformational change.” Whether in Afghanistan or Abruzzo, Wabbes says politicians must “urgently shift from emergency responses to extreme weather events to long-term investment and risk management policies.” Even if emissions were to stop tomorrow, climate change would not go away. “We cannot avoid making droughts worse, but we can reduce their impacts,” she adds.

[See also: Why the UN Security Council can’t keep ignoring climate-driven conflict]

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