Agrifood Special CAPitals Brief: Living life on the edge

Between frosts, drought and scorching heatwaves, countries all across Europe are facing unprecedented climatic conditions, and the agricultural sector stands first in line to bear the full brunt of this.

In this Special CAPitals Edition of the EURACTIV Agrifood Brief, EURACTIV’s network takes a look at the effects of climate change on the farming sector, and how famers are coping with living life on the edge.

FRANCE

First frost, now drought. In addition to the late frost that hit a large part of France in early April – affecting 50% of mustard crops in particular – and the thunderstorms and hail at the beginning of June, farmers must, above all, deal with the drought which continues to intensify.

Between September and April 2022, the rainfall deficit is estimated at 19%, and the groundwater recharge deficit at 20%.

While winter cereals could lose 40% of their yields, spring crops are struggling to emerge at the moment because of the dryness of the soil. This is the case for maize but also for sunflowers, a particularly important crop in France, which imports 90% of its oil from Ukraine.

On 26 May, the new Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced exceptional measures such as the restriction of water use in the most affected departments (around thirty). She also confirmed the opening of the exceptional aid plan of €400 million set up following the war in Ukraine.

The head of government will also double the budget – from €20 to 40 million – for farmers who want to invest in equipment to optimise water consumption and release an additional €100 million for water agencies to help agricultural sectors adapt or create water reservoirs.

Finally, the government has planned to strengthen crop insurance, which is due to come into force on 1 January 2023.

For this summer, the situation should not improve. The ministry of ecological transition predicts that 22 departments will present a “very probable” risk of drought by the end of the summer, mainly in the South-East and the West. (Hugo Struna | EURACTIV.fr) 

GERMANY

German agriculture has seen an extraordinarily dry spring. March was one of the driest since records began, according to data from the German Meteorological Service (DWD), with Northern and Eastern regions going completely without rain for weeks on end.

While agriculture in several regions also faced damage from severe storms earlier this year, the most disruptive weather event of the recent past remains the severe rainfall and flooding in Western Germany in the spring of 2021, which destroyed fields but also stocked produce.

To help cope with such extreme weather events, which are becoming increasingly frequent due to climate change, the German federal and regional governments launched a joint agenda for climate adaptation in agriculture in forestry back in 2019.

Meanwhile, the government is currently working on a nationwide strategy to strengthen resilience against catastrophes such as floods or droughts.

According to a current draft seen by the news portal Agrarheute, this will include, among other things, measures to strengthen the resilience of agricultural production through nature-based farming practices, as well as minimising dependence on singular sources for inputs like feed, fertiliser, and energy.

Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry has also said it would review Germany’s CAP Strategic Plan in light of the war in Ukraine with a view to strengthening the sector’s crisis resilience. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de) 

AUSTRIA

Rainfall patterns wreak havoc. Like elsewhere in Europe, this year’s spring, and March especially, were extraordinarily dry in Austria, putting the farming sector under strain. According to experts, the spring drought hit especially hard as winter had already been dry, meaning soils had no leftover moisture to draw on.

In 2021, as well, farmers grappled with several extreme weather events, with damage amounting to more than €200 million across the country, according to insurance data – the highest amount since the start of recordings in 1946.

Meanwhile, data from the country’s central meteorology institute (ZAMG) shows that rainfalls in Austria during summer have become more concentrated, meaning that both dry spells and heavy rainfalls are becoming increasingly frequent.

The Austrian government first launched a climate change adaptation strategy in 2012, which was updated in 2017 and recommends working towards a resource-friendly farming model, both in terms of inputs and natural resources. The strategy also sets out soil health measures to help make soils more resilient.

However, a 2021 assessment progress report on the strategy found that, while research on more climate-resilient crop breeds was on a good path, decision makers’ lacking awareness of the issue of climate change adaptation remained a key challenge. (Julia Dahm | EURACTIV.de)


ITALY 

Over 30% of national agricultural production ‘at risk’. In Italy, 2022 so far has seen rainfall “practically halved” according to Coldiretti, the main farmers’ organisation in the country. The winter was mild and dry, with temperatures above the historical average of 0.8° C and 32% less rainfall (almost 16 billion cubic metres of water), making it the sixth driest winter since 1960.

The drought has hit the Northern regions in particular. In the area of ​​the Po Valley, the lack of water, according to Coldiretti, has put at risk over 30% of the national agricultural production and half of the livestock.

According to data from the association of reclamation and irrigation consortia (Anbi), in February in Piedmont, there was 90% less rain than the seasonal averages, and in Lombardy and Veneto 53% less. Also in February, the Po, the main Italian river, at Ponte della Becca, an observatory in the province of Pavia, dropped to -3.07 meters above the hydrometric zero, a level lower than that usually recorded in August.

The drought, Coldiretti wrote in a note, has changed the cultivation choices in the area with an estimated drop of ten thousand hectares of rice sowing, which needs more water, in favour of soybeans. 

“What is worrying is the reduction in production yields from crops in the field such as sunflower, corn, wheat and other cereals but also that of fodder for feeding animals and vegetables and fruit that need water to grow,” the farmers’ association noted.

On top of this, there are also the rises in energy and raw materials prices, and the effects of the war in Ukraine. As Massimiliano Giansanti, president of another large agricultural organisation, Confagricoltura, explained to EURACTIV Italy, the price of wheat and oilseeds has doubled and the effects of this war will be seen until 2024.

To deal with the situation, the Italian government has foreseen a number of interventions such as an allocation of €180 million for access to guarantees for small and medium-sized enterprises affected by the increase in the cost of energy and raw materials. Another €60 million funds will be on offer to help farmers renegotiate mortgages from agricultural businesses, while farmers will also be eligible for a contribution in the form of a tax credit for the purchase of fuel.

Furthermore, in the context of the temporary crisis framework, in May the European Commission approved the Italian state aid scheme of €1.2 billion for the agriculture, forestry, fishing and aquaculture sectors. (Daniele Lettig | EURACTIV.it)

SPAIN

Water shortages plague Spain. Spain is facing the first heat wave of the year and the third driest year of the century, with unusually hot spells hitting temperatures of 45 degrees in many areas and “tropical nights” in June. Records of maximum and minimum temperatures were registered in May

Cereal producers foresee a 20% reduction in their harvests due to high temperatures. If extreme weather persists, yields could be lower in later areas of production.

Agriculture and livestock suffer from water shortages in many Spanish regions due to the drought, which is changing the Spanish planning of crops, with less planting of rice and beet.

The shortage of grains is especially significant in the context of the crisis linked to the war in Ukraine. 

Spain is a net importer of cereals, only 40% of the grain consumed in Spain is national and a third of the total is purchased from the two Eastern European countries in conflict. Ukraine is the main supplier of corn for Spain.

The Spanish government approved a royal decree-law with fiscal, labour, financial and hydrological measures, worth €450 million euros, to support farmers affected by drought. 

In addition, there is another royal decree-law to mitigate the overall economic consequences of the war in Spain, including €430 million for farmers and fishermen. (Mercedes Salas | EFE Agro)

GREECE

Greek agri minister: New support package for farmers coming. Greece is experiencing more and more frequent severe weather phenomena, making the need for compensation to producers imperative.

The Greek government has paid farmers through ELGA (the Hellenic Agricultural Insurance Organisation) compensation of €350 million for the year 2021.

According to the Greek agriculture minister, Georgios Georgantas, it is a “fact that we need to move towards more resistant crops but also protected crops – such as greenhouse crops, which are favoured by the climate in our country.”

On the issue of the war in Ukraine and food security, Georgantas stressed that Greece has moved on two axes: to replace imports from the war-torn countries with imports from other European countries and to increase domestic production.

“We support this effort by including soft wheat and maize in the coupled payments and ensuring the use of fallow land, without producers losing the benefits of the fallow programme,” he said, stressing that food sufficiency in Greece is “ensured”.

To date, in addition to the measures for the general population, from which farmers also benefit, some €200 million have been announced for the primary sector in particular, coming exclusively from national resources.

“By the end of the month we will announce an additional support package coming from European resources,” Georgantas told EURACTIV Greece. (Georgia Karagianni | EURACTIV.gr)

POLAND

Violent storms, floods shake Poland. Poland is currently facing various weather and climate problems, which are troubling Polish farmers. In connection with climate change, violent storms arrive in Poland with increasing frequency, causing very strong winds, and sometimes flooding. 

On the other hand, a significant part of Poland, mainly in the Wielkopolskie and Łódzkie regions, is being rapidly desertified. Even local desert storms have started to appear over Poland, and some towns, such as Skierniewice, run out of water reserves in summer.

This often results in the destruction of crops, which wither and are useless. 

Meanwhile, grain in Poland is also significantly more expensive than in previous years. The situation in Ukraine may also be contributing to a sharp rise in grain prices.

In connection with the problems with water retention in Poland, the government established the State Water Management Company (‘Państwowe Gospodarstwo Wodne Wody Polskie’) a few years ago, which is responsible for organising water retention in the country. 

However, as the Polityka newspaper notes, the Polish government is still pursuing a policy of regulating rivers and adapting them for navigation, which has the opposite effect of retention. 

Despite this, according to Wody Polskie, in 2020, the overall retention of the country’s water was increased for the first time in 30 years. (Bartosz Sieniawski | EURACTIV.pl)

SLOVAKIA

This year’s harvest may be in jeopardy. Weather conditions increasingly affect food production in Slovakia every year, and this year is no exception with reports of extreme droughts from several Slovak regions coming from farmers and meteorologists. 

If the total rainfall amount does not increase in the coming weeks, this year’s harvest may be in jeopardy, they warn. 

According to a specialised online platform, which continuously monitors the intensity of drought in Slovakia, 1.8% of the territory is extremely affected, but a large part of the territory is facing an “exceptional and significant” drought. 

The most extreme situation is in the northeast and southeast of the country. Water is missing in the atmosphere, rivers and soil throughout the territory of Slovakia.

“Only less than 3% of the Slovak territory does not face problems,” said Jana Holéciová, a spokeswoman for the largest Slovak agricultural organisation (SPPK).

As several farmers told the daily newspaper Hospodárské noviny, all of them have a problem with the shortage of water in the soil. According to them, the absence of precipitation will affect the yield of corn, wheat or rapeseed.

The efficiency of crop production is also significantly affected by an insufficient irrigation system. 

Before 1989, a relatively robust irrigation system was built in Slovakia, but more than half of it is now non-functional. Between 2012 and 2017, it was used on only 1.29% of agricultural land. 

But drought is not the only threat to Slovak farmers. Fruit growers especially have serious harvest losses caused by the early spring frosts. 

However, according to them, frosts have not damaged the fruit trees so much this year, which is largely due to rising investments in the protection against frost.

The ministry is currently paying ad hoc subsidy schemes from the state budget to farmers with remediation of damage caused by extreme weather events. Precisely for financial compensation in such situations, the Slovak government promised in 2020 to create a special risk management system, including an insurance fund. The state as well as farmers would contribute to the fund.

The ministry is currently paying ad hoc subsidy schemes from the state budget to farmers with remediation of damage caused by extreme weather events. 

In 2020, the Slovak government announced a departure from this unsystematic solution and promised farmers the creation of a special risk management system, including an insurance fund. The state as well as farmers would contribute to the fund.

However, Slovak growers have been listening to this promise for many years, and even now it is not clear whether the current government will be able to set up the fund. In the strategic plan, the ministry of agriculture proposes to allocate €40 million from the CAP for risk management for insurable events. (Marian Koren | EURACTIV.sk)

BULGARIA

Bulgarian farmers are not afraid of the weather but of Ukrainian grain. This year’s grain harvest in Bulgaria is not threatened by the weather conditions in the country, because in the last two years the rains have been sufficient for good yields. Before 2020, Bulgaria went through a period of three relatively dry years. Instead, the fears of Bulgarian farmers are not related to the weather but to the import of cheap grain from Ukraine.

“The weather conditions are bad for some, but they are very good for us because there was a drought until recently. The current conditions are good for the harvest, for which we have very good expectations,” Kostadin Kostadinov, chairman of the Association of Grain Producers, told EURACTIV.

As Bulgaria is one of the largest grain producers in Europe, he pointed out that the country is not threatened by a food crisis because it is a large producer of cereals.

“The good thing is that Bulgarian grain production has been built as a sustainable branch of our agriculture. This happened on the basis of market conditions and at the moment we cannot talk about a shortage of agricultural products in Bulgaria, but we can talk about problems and undercutting the price of our harvest, which is done from Ukraine through Bulgaria,” he said.

“If a deal is agreed for 400,000 tonnes of corn to be imported before the new harvest, it will crush local prices. Bulgarian producers have spent the whole year at high prices and the production has a high cost. It will be difficult for us to survive.”

“Our problem is not the weather conditions, but the policies,” Kostadinov said.

He said Bulgarian products pass many inspections before being exported because Bulgaria is part of the EU. At the same time, the grain from Ukraine is transhipped at night and leaves without checks, being sold on behalf of Bulgaria. He urged the Bulgarian government to take action as the threat comes with protests against the government. (Krasen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg)

CROATIA

From ‘whimsical’ to worrisome weather. In Croatia, there is a saying that the weather in spring is whimsical, with hail and heavy rain common throughout the continental part of the country.

However, over the past several years, whimsical weather events have shifted into disasters. 

June was a particularly bad example of this trend. Zlatko Brlek, the mayor of Klanjec in Zagorje, the northern part of Croatia close to Slovenia, told state news agency Hina on 2 June that the disaster that had befallen his town was terrible and that a hail “as big as a nut had been falling for five minutes”. 

“The damage to crops and vineyards is certainly 100%,” he warned. Over the next two weeks, three more hail storms were recorded in Zagorje, with heavy wind, destroying almost all the corps and the size of the hail was bigger and bigger: from nuts to golf balls and at the end the size of tennis balls.

Damage was enormous, roofs were ruptured, and cars were left with broken windshields. Streets were covered with hail and looked white, as if covered in snow. This kind of severe weather and storm, being short but immensely strong and damaging and coming in waves in one part of the country, has not previously been recorded by meteorologists.

The government does not provide anti-hail shells and a lot of people in Zagorje were furious because of that. Because of that, some farmers are using other anti-hail measures, like nests proving to be efficient during the storms.

In Slavonia, the eastern part of Croatia and its breadbasket, the first months of spring brought a drought that harmed the crops. And then, on June 10, the sky opened and in several hours there was more rainfall than is usual during the whole spring.

One thing is certain, farmers in Zagorje and Slavonia do not doubt global warming and its negative effects on agriculture.

Fortunately, there will be enough grain not only for domestic consumption but also for export. (Zeljko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr) 

ROMANIA

Farming production impacted by drought, farmers still waiting on massive irrigation works. A few days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Romanian agriculture minister Adrian Chesnoiu told his fellow ministers reunited in the AGRIFISH Council that the EU needs to take urgent measures to address the new challenges of climate change. 

The Romanian agriculture minister warned a severe drought could strongly affect the east and southeast of the country, the most important farming area.

In just a few days, the continent-wide priorities shifted as two agricultural powerhouses got tangled in a conflict with no end in sight, but the farming sector in Romania did not forget the drought threat.

Talks on desertification of certain areas and major investments in irrigation systems that only get delayed year after year are no minor issues in a country hit by the worst drought in half a century just two years ago.

In 2020, farmers were hit by both severe drought and the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of that season are still felt today. They rebounded in 2021, the best farming year in history, with record productions almost all across the board, but Romania’s agriculture remains far too dependent on weather conditions.

Farmers have already warned that the drought considerably affected the autumn-sown crops, and the effects of the lack of rain in the first months of this year impacted the spring crops as well.

In March, the Association of Farmers in Romania said the first estimates point to a decrease of around 17% in this year’s cereal production, which translates into a loss of €500 million. 

“These are much-needed money, which Romanian agriculture cannot afford to lose,” the association said in a news release.

The most recent estimation by the European association of trade in cereals (Coceral) showed that Romania could produce 2022 almost four million tonnes of cereals less than in the previous year. Romanian total cereal production is estimated at 22.4 million tonnes, around 15% lower than in 2021.

Over the past years, authorities announced massive investments in irrigation infrastructure, but also in preventing desertification and soil degradation. The first draft of the country’s recovery and resilience plan included a whopping €6.5 billion for agriculture investments, in principle related to water infrastructure. 

But the approved version only kept a small amount for desiccation-drainage works, and zero funding for irrigation systems, as the EU Commission considered the Romanian government did not present enough evidence that those investments would not have a negative environmental impact.

Following that drawback, the Romanian Parliament adopted in April a law that increases the budget for irrigation infrastructure but also allows farmers to build their own irrigation microsystems, including some government subsidies.

Meanwhile, the government has included in the strategic plan for the farming sector a chapter dedicated to irrigation. The plan, which will form the basis on which EU funds for farming will be paid between 2023 and 2027, is yet to be approved by the European Commission. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)

[Edited by Natasha Foote/Gerardo Fortuna]

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