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06.09.2019 |

Climate change threatens farming in southern Europe, report

Drought
Droughts will affect yields (Photo: CC0)

Climate change will threaten the future of farming in Europe and crop production may even have to be abandoned in parts of southern Europe, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has warned. According to a report published this week, a cascade of impacts from climate change on agro ecosystems and crop production will have negative effects on the price, quantity and quality of products, thus affecting agricultural incomes and farmland prices in Europe. “New records are being set around the world due to climate change, and the adverse effects of this change are already affecting agricultural production in Europe, especially in the south,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director. Extreme weather and heatwaves in many parts of the EU are already causing economic losses for farmers. The bad news is that these impacts are expected to increase in the years to come.

Future climate change might also have some positive effects due to longer growing seasons and better crop conditions, mainly for farmers in parts of northern Europe. “The projected climate change conditions will determine an increase in crop productivity by 2050 for cereal crops (such as wheat, maize and barley) and root and tuber crops (such as sugar beet and potato),” the authors write. They also expect a gradual northwards shift of current olive cultivation areas in the coming decades. But any advantages will largely be outweighed by the losses from extreme events and decreasing crop productivity in southern Europe. “According to projections using a high-end emission scenario, yields of non-irrigated crops like wheat, corn and sugar beet are projected to decrease in southern Europe by up to 50% by 2050,” the authors warn. Across Europe, the overall economic loss to agriculture from climate change could be as high as 16% by 2050, with large regional variations.

In addition, farmland values could decrease in parts of southern Europe by more than 80% by 2100, which could result in land abandonment. “Two thirds of the loss in land values in the EU could be concentrated in Italy, where the revenues of Italian farms are very sensitive to seasonal changes in climate parameters, especially under more severe climate scenarios,” the report says. On the contrary, land values could increase in western Europe and by an even higher percentage in northern European countries. Climate change will also have an impact on trade patterns, which in turn affects agricultural income. According to the EU agency, fodder and food security in the EU will probably not be an issue, but increased food demand worldwide could exert pressure on food prices in the coming decades.

The study says that adapting to climate change must be made a top priority for the EU’s agriculture sector if it is to improve resilience to extreme events like droughts, heatwaves and floods. “Despite some progress, much more must be done to adapt by the sector itself, and especially at farm-level, and future EU policies need to be designed in a way to facilitate and accelerate transition in this sector,” said Hans Bruyninckx. The EEA report stresses that adaptation at the farm level often does not take place due to of lack of financing, policy support, knowledge and awareness. It gives examples of adaptation measures for the agriculture sector. Crop diversification and rotation, for example, improve the resilience of crops and deliver a range of ecosystem services, such as efficient nutrient cycling, conservation of biodiversity and improved soil quality. Another measure is the use of cover crops, which can significantly reduce the risk of soil degradation. “The use of cover crops can also reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilisation required, and in turn the emissions of nitrogen not used by preceding crops, which can decrease nitrate leaching. Cover crops can improve wildlife habitats and diversity by decreasing erosion,” the authors explain.

EEA also recommends using adapted crops to adapt to the impact of extreme weather and climate events, such as frost or droughts. “This measure has synergies with mitigation in that soil carbon storage can increase. Introducing new crops or bringing back heritage crops has positive effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services and increases the genetic diversity of species, which in turn can become more resilient to extreme weather and climate conditions.” Another adaptation option is organic farming: “Using organic fertilisers in organic farming promotes organic carbon storage in soils. Organic farming practices generate high levels of soil organic matter. This enhances water storage capacities and increases resilience against droughts and floods.” The report notes that modifying the timing of sowing and harvesting can help to make use of better soil moisture conditions and improve yields. Adaptation measures also include field margins and agroforestry as well as improved irrigation efficiency, rainwater harvesting and water reuse. However, adaptation measures focused on delivering wider public benefits need to be made more attractive to farmers. The report suggests that EU Member States should better prioritise adaptation in the farming sector, for example by increasing the financing of measures in the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy. (ab)

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