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Climate change and agriculture – Europe must adapt, too

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By Carola Traverso Saibante
Corriere della Sera
June 6, 2014

Global warming is also threatening agriculture in Europe, a continent that is not immune to the problem of the safety of the food supply. The principal crops such as wheat and corn are not only yielding less in quantitative terms but are also at risk in qualitative terms. Especially in the South, where the climate is becoming warmer and drier, water resources are scarce and pests are spreading, so now is the time to adapt. Europe is the world’s largest producer of wheat, the second most widely cultivated grain in the world after rice, a crop that will be particularly hard-hit by a rise in temperature. In fact, hot weather can accelerate its growth and cause a reduction in yields.

Extreme climatic events

A study recently published in Nature demonstrates how extreme and adverse climatic events – which climate change is exacerbating in terms of scope and frequency – pose a serous threat to the production of wheat. Using the most recent climate models combined with the most recent estimates of greenhouse gas emissions, researchers have shown how adverse climate events will increase significantly by 2060 and how – given the now certain negative correlation between extreme heat and crop yields – that will probably translate into more frequent crop failures in the Old World. Scientists at Stanford have just confirmed in the pages of the same prestigious scientific journal that European harvests will feel the effects of the rise in global temperature. “The results have shown clearly how even a modest change in climate can have a major impact on the harvests of various crops in Europe,” explained Frances Moore, co-author of the study.

Reduced yields

Since 1980, with the progressive rise in temperatures, farmers who grow wheat, corn and orzo have already seen their harvests diminish – although other factors besides the climate may have contributed to this decline. With the rise in temperature projected for 2040, the scientists now say, the harvests of wheat and orzo will be reduced by more than 20%, while the corn harvest will be reduced by approximately 10%. Both studies emphasize the importance of adapting to the impacts of climate change on the part of European farmers in the decades to come. Adaptation means studying a series of measures – from the use of different varieties or different crops to the use of more suitable irrigation systems – based on technologies currently available to reduce the adverse effects of global warming. These are strategies that are complementary to and compatible with sustainable agricultural practices, given that adaptability and flexibility of production management taking into consideration the vulnerability of the system to external stresses (such as climate change) is inherent to the very concept of sustainable agriculture.

Adaptation

The novel feature of the Stanford studylies in the fact that the researchers have measured the potential for adaptation of European agriculture. Although for some crops there are substantial possibilities of reducing losses by up to 87% with long-term adaptation, for others – such as wheat and orzo – the potential is quite limited. Corn is the crop with the highest adaptation potential. The multinationals are also arming themselves for this adaptation. Monsanto, in collaboration with the Israeli company Netafim, has launched AquaTekin Italy, a project to manage corn cultivation developed to respond to what Federico Bertoli, Sales and Marketing Director of Monsanto Italia, defines as the “whims” of the climate. “Genetic improvement combined with new agricultural technologies, principally related to the use of water, will make it possible to limit, as far as possible, the impact of climate conditions which have become increasingly harsh in recent years.” This is a system, designed ad hoc for the plains in the Po Valley, which combines new varieties of seeds that are particularly resistant to hydric stress with drip irrigation techniques supported by a measurement of the water content of the soil in real time, which can conserve up to 30% of water resources.

New irrigation techniques

One thing that is certain is that climate change will make it necessary to change irrigation technologies, at least in southern Europe. With regard to wheat – Barilla, in collaboration with Horta, has also developed a web-based system that takes into consideration the weather conditions and the specific characteristics of the territory to optimize the efficiency of the integrated approach to the cultivation of hard wheat. Farmers who purchase seeds of the variety for which the system is designed will receive useful scientific and technical information via the web in each phase of the cultivation cycle.

CO2 and the food supply

There is one aspect, or more precisely an effect, which has not previously been mentioned: the higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have a disadvantageous effect on the nutritional quality of the food we eat. Collaboration among eight international scientific institutions, led by Harvard, has made possible a study on the subject recently published in Nature which has confirmed the results of similar studies conducted around the world, namely that the nutritional quality of crops declines as the level of CO2 in the atmosphere increases. The team simulated the future conditions that scientists are predicting for 2050 in open-air fields using a system called Face (Free Air Concentration Enrichment). The reactions of various varieties of wheat, rice, corn, soy, peas and sorghum were studied. One particularly worrisome effect is the reduction in the levels of zinc and iron, two extremely important nutrients, shortages of which in the food supply already constitute a planetary health problem. The increase in CO2 also causes a decline in the protein content of wheat and rice. Corn and sorghum would fare better, thanks to the type of photosynthesis characteristic of these plants. Considering that at least 2 billion people are already suffering from zinc and iron deficiencies, a reduction in these nutrients represents the most important health threat associated with climate change demonstrated so far. According to the authors of the study, the implications of higher emissions of CO2 on malnutrition on a world level are enormous. “Humanity will be conducting a global experiment in rapidly altering the environmental conditions of the single habitable planet we know of,” saidSamuel Myers, a Harvard research and principal author of the study. “As this experiment proceeds, there will undoubtedly be many surprises. One of the surprises has been the discovery that an increase in CO2 is a threat to human nutrition.”

This article was originally published by Corriere della Sera, which granted Monsanto permission to translate it into English and publish it here.

Original version (in Italian)

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