Drought pulls Europe’s farmers to the front line of a drying world

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Temperature records fell like dominoes in Europe last week. On Saturday 18 June, 203 heat records for the month were beaten or tied in France alone, along with 18 records for the hottest temperature at any time of year. In many places this unprecedented heat follows one of the driest winters ever. The resulting drought is an alarm bell for governments, which must help farmers to become more resilient in the face of climate change, say food policy experts. Ignoring it could have disastrous impacts on food production.

East Africa has barely had any rain for four years. Millions of people face dire water shortages. Food prices have risen rapidly because of poor harvests and the impact of the war in Ukraine on cereal exports. More than 18 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia live with acute food insecurity, not knowing when they wake up whether they will be able to eat that day. Across the Atlantic Ocean, southwestern states in the US are facing their worst drought in 1,200 years. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the country’s two largest reservoirs, have been in drought conditions for more than 20 years and are now at their lowest levels ever. 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 climate change from human activity is making them worse. Emissions scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere won’t simply cause the world to warm, but will provoke more extreme weather patterns, including heatwaves, floods and droughts.

The situation in Europe is not as drastic as in the US and certainly nothing like the tragedy unfolding in East Africa. Yet the trend is the same and food production is on the front line. High energy costs and wheat shortages because of Russia’s blockade of exports from Ukraine have pushed up food prices. The Food Price Index of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) showed that a basket of food cost nearly 23 per cent more in May than it did at the same time last year. Failed harvests would push up prices even further. Agronomists warned in May that France’s wheat harvest could suffer severe damage because of widespread drought. France is Europe’s biggest producer of wheat and the country’s agriculture minister, Marc Fesneau, tried to reassure markets this week that the lack of rain wouldn’t mean a “dramatic” decline in the production of winter cereals. Only once the combine harvesters have been in and done their work will analysts be able to judge if Fesneau was correct.

[See also: Are heatwaves the new normal?]

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

“We have seen big change in weather patterns – it rains less, it is less predictable when the rain will come and when it does rain it is often sudden and heavy causing soil erosion,” she says. It is normal in the Mediterranean for it to rain in the winter and be dry in the summer, she explains. “The problem is when there is no rain in the spring or at the end of the winter and then we enter into the summer with no water reserves and no moisture in the soil,” as is the case this year. This winter was one of the driest Italy has experienced in the last 65 years, with rainfall 80 per cent lower than the seasonal average. Another issue is the increasing frequency of sudden weird weather events. “Two weeks ago a hailstorm destroyed my neighbour’s red fruit crop,” says Wabbes. “The situation is very complex. We are facing multiple risks and impacts on our lives and livelihoods.” 

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Peter Stott, from the UK’s Met Office, says Wabbes’ experiences tally with the climate science, which shows rain decreasing in the Mediterranean, while further north winters are getting wetter. “There will be more extremes,” he warns, “including an increasing risk of drought in the summer, even in places where it is wetter in the winter, because hotter days will increase evaporation.”

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

The pandemic may have been the final straw, but the heatwave had already stretched the farmer to breaking point, says Halliday. “Climate change affects the most vulnerable more as they have no adaption techniques.” Indeed, research by the FAO shows that smallholder farmers, who produce around a third of the world’s food, are hardest hit by multiple shocks and stresses.

Those least able to cope with the “perfect storm” tend to be in poorer countries, but even in Europe many farmers have little resilience built into their operations. While in the longer term, policies to drastically reduce emissions are the only solution, in the short term, with government support, farmers everywhere can change practices to better cope with a drying world. Subsidies for efficient irrigation, better soil management to lock in moisture, planting trees to create shade, growing fruit trees, choosing crops and breeding animals that are more resilient to dry spells and intense heat, and storing, re-using and recycling rainwater can all help, says Wabbes. Farmers also need warning about 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 learnt how to do things differently, but policymakers are still not seeing the need for long-term transformational change.” Whether it is in Afghanistan or Abruzzo, Wabbes says politicians need to “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 disappear. “We cannot avoid worsening droughts, 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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