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European farmers grapple with new normal as drought wilts summer harvests

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European farmers are reckoning with the prospect of a future where parched pastures and shriveled fruits are no longer considered extremes but the norm.

From Belgian potatoes and Romanian corn to French butter, Spanish beef and Italian tomatoes, the Continent’s signature foods have been ravaged this summer by a blistering heat wave and drought, which are set to lower farmers’ yields come harvest time and hurt agricultural revenues. As farmers warn the current dry spell will lead to painful losses, a bigger concern is how and if they will manage to cope with a drier and warmer future, with many already having to change the practices they’ve employed for decades.

In its latest report, the European Drought Observatory said a “staggering portion of Europe” is now exposed to high so-called drought hazards, with 47 percent of EU land placed under the level of “warning” and 17 percent at the more severe “alert” level. 

The “exceptionally hot and dry conditions” across most of the bloc mean the production of staple crops, such as sunflowers, cereals and sugar, will be “well below” usual levels, according to a July report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

Belgian farmers say crops such as potatoes and beans are being “burnt by the sun,” while farmers in France and Romania, both world-leading grain exporters, expect production losses as high as 14 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

Without rain, farmers rearing livestock to make premium meat or dairy goods in Spain and France have seen grazing fields for their herds dry up, hurting the production of milk, butter and cream. This has put a further squeeze on their bottom lines as they are already struggling to afford feed due to record inflation and the supply chain impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Po river that has for years been used to irrigate rice paddies and sprawling corn fields is running so low that seawater began seeping in | Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

In Italy’s northern Po Valley region, the eponymous river that has for years been used to irrigate rice paddies and sprawling corn fields is running so low that seawater began seeping in, further drying out the already arid fields of the country’s industrial agricultural heartland.

Leading Italian farm lobby Coldiretti said the drought has “devastated” the country’s rice harvest, with those growing its traditional rice varieties expecting to lose up to 30 percent of their harvests. The drought has also brought a third of Italian fruit and vegetable production “down to its knees,” according to local media.

In France, farmers in the southwestern Tarn region say their EU-protected gourmet Lautrec Pink Garlic is sizzling in the heat, leading them to lose up to a third of their usual production, while EU winegrowers are expecting a disappointing 2022 season as grapes wither on the vine. In an attempt to save part of their harvests, Italian vintners have begun the harvesting season weeks earlier.

National governments have offered measures to soften the immediate blow to farmers this year, including Italy declaring a state of emergency in July entailing water rationing, and Hungary granting funds to cover increased irrigation and animal feed costs.

The impact of this year’s drought on harvests is also likely to fuel calls for delaying the EU’s green reforms for agriculture, which many EU governments argue will put further pressure on their farmers, with Hungary already saying such “nice plans” should wait for a later date.

But many farmers say short-term planning will not cut it.

“Every year we are living through more intense and more frequent drought periods, and it is making it more and more difficult to keep producing,” said Sonia Vidal, a cattle farmer in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia. “Every year, climate change is becoming more and more noticeable here.”

‘We are not used to this’

Beyond the immediate impact on yields, many farmers are worried about the longer-term consequences that years of drought upon drought, combined with ever-rising temperatures, are having on the land many of them have worked for generations.

Vidal from Galicia said that for years now, her region’s typically wet and rainy winters have become drier and drier. 

“During the winter months, it is not raining as much as it should be raining. It’s a reality that is there,” she said.

With not enough grass for grazing, as a result, Vidal said she and many other farmers in her area have been forced to prematurely tap into their reserves, normally used to feed cattle during winter, while others, discouraged by their future prospects, have had to close their farms or sell off their cattle.

Galicia’s typically wet and rainy winters have become drier and drier | Carmelo Alen/AFP via Getty Images

Dr. Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which monitors conditions via satellite, said drought and water scarcity are projected to become more frequent and intense across the Continent as long as emissions remain on the rise. Burgess added this would only lead to an “increased risk of heat and drought stress on crops and increased risk of water scarcity.”

“When it comes to future projections for the end of the century, all of Europe is expected to see an increased risk in the first [heat and drought stress], while for … drought + water scarcity, there is only high confidence in the increase of such risks for southern Europe,” she said in an email. “These risks increase further the higher the projected future emissions.”

Such forecasts fall in line with the conclusions of multiple recent reports from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which back in February warned that the EU was ill-prepared to cope with the extreme weather events linked to climate change.

Antonio Onorati, a 74-year-old small-scale sheep, legume and grain farmer outside of Rome, said that ever-warmer winters and unpredictable rain patterns are throwing his farm’s operations off balance, causing fruit to ripen much earlier, killing decades-old trees and making it harder to control weeds. “Last year, it was impossible to harvest our wheat. It was a disaster,” he said.

Shorter, milder winters also mean that trees and other vegetation need water and care much earlier than usual, he said, adding: “The land is changing.”

The concern for Onorati is also that, in times of want, the little water available is often used to satiate the needs of the biggest players, such as industrial-scale tomato, wheat, wine and rice growers up north — where the bulk of the country’s industrial farms are located, many of which export their foods under the lucrative Made In Italy label.

“Drought is a problem for everyone, so why should water be used for wheat rather than for a farmer’s goats?” he asked.

In the Netherlands, the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural goods after the U.S., the government declared a “de facto” water shortage this month, handing over water management powers to public authorities.

Klarien Klingen, who runs a small, community-managed produce farm in the central town of Ede, said it was becoming apparent that fruit and vegetable farming would increasingly require irrigation infrastructure, as consistently moist soils become less and less the norm.

“This is new for us. In decades of farming, it used to be a rarity to have to water vegetable plots,” Klingen said. “These temperatures … we are not used to it. I reckon we are going to have to really … re-learn.”

Vidal, the Spanish cattle farmer, said much like water, optimism about governments offering enough relief was also running low.

“All there’s left for us to do is wait for some rain,” she said. “For those of us who are working the fields, [political] solutions always arrive too late, and always badly.”

Zia Weise and Antonia Zimmermann contributed reporting.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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