Heat extremes, floods, soil erosion and more: climate change impacts are set to critically affect agriculture - and, as such, our main food source. What are we to expect in Europe?
When talking about climate change, most people immediately think of summers getting hotter and seasons getting drier. Considering that the mainstream conversation around climate change aims to prevent a global temperature increase beyond 2 ℃, it makes sense. But by only focusing on this small segment, we can easily miss many other critical effects of climate change. For instance, what about food security? How will agriculture react to global warming and changes in precipitation patterns? What is more, these changes are happening before our very eyes, and responses are already required.
Straight to the point – climate change affects agriculture, and vice versa. It has and will have further major effects on water, air, and soil. Among other impacts, climate change is set to cause heat extremes, a shift in precipitation patterns, an increased risk of flooding, and the loss of biodiversity. All of these effects, needless to say, affect agricultural productivity. If productivity falls, food prices rise; if food prices rise, global food security is at risk. In other words, climate change poses a major threat to agriculture.
State of the Harvest
Currently, crop production is changing as plants become increasingly more sensitive to shifts in our climate. Depending on the species, there can be varied and unforeseen reactions. Higher temperatures can cause a decrease in photosynthesis, in pollen production, and in their weight.
What is more, a shift in rainfalls means that wet areas are becoming wetter while dry regions are experiencing severe droughts. The occurrence of heavy and frequent precipitation is increasing, causing scenes of damaged fruit barely hanging from the branches or whole trees being destroyed.
And rainfall itself is only part of a bigger issue: the changing global water cycle being caused by climate change. Flash floods are becoming increasingly more common — most of Western Europe is at risk of flooding in the future. During July 2021, heavy rainfalls in the Czech Republic caused hundreds of incidents in just a few short hours. Parts of Romania also experienced flash flooding in mid-July. One man died and over a hundred people had to be evacuated or rescued during these few days. Around the same time, Germany was swamped by extreme rainfall. The effects were shocking: cars and houses were destroyed and more than 160 people died. Witnessing these truly horrific scenes further reaffirms the view that immediate action is needed to combat climate change.
Unfortunately it does not stop there, with further impacts that are hardly ever mentioned in everyday discourses. To the uneducated eye, many types of erosion are invisible – soil erosion is one of them. When landslides occur, it of course raises concern in all environmentally conscious people, but we rarely think about how it has an effect on crops, animal feed, food production and human health. This alters soil fertility, which makes it even more difficult for plants to properly develop.
Quid Pro Quo
A big part of the problem of how climate change is affecting agriculture, and will continue to, relates to the other side of the coin: how agriculture itself contributes to climate change. Brace yourselves: the numbers are quite shocking. Around 23 % of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector. Even more concerning: some estimates predict that in the future this number could almost double.
Due to deforestation, carbon dioxide levels are rising. A total 10% of all CO2 emissions are directly linked to agriculture and deforestation. An increase in nitrogen dioxide levels is caused by fertilisers, while an increase in methane concentration is caused mainly by ruminant animals, and enteric fermentation.
Given all this, mitigation and adaptation are a must. The European Union recommends assessing and monitoring impacts, efficient data managing, coordination of policies and the conservation of all threatened crops and animals. Resilience building, reducing exposure to extreme weather, food security, sustainable practices and policies, efficient water use, protection, conservation, and climate education also have an important place among the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Furthermore, individual approaches and attitudes are also changing to be more environmentally conscious.
This is all important progress, but something is still missing to effectively combat climate change.
Some say that the whole system needs to evolve in order to see real changes in the battle against the changing climate. In the most apocalyptic vision of our future, our whole ecosystem could change and the world we live in now would disappear completely. But where do the opportunities lie in this rather bleak future that is being painted for us? As the former Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon has said: “Addressing the climate challenge presents a golden opportunity to promote prosperity, security and a brighter future for all.”
Obviously, Europe as a whole is to be affected by climate change, but the effect may differ from one biogeographical region to the other. In Europe, we distinguish between six different biogeographical regions — namely, the Mediterranean region, the Boreal region, the Atlantic region, the Continental region, the Mountain regions, and the Coastal zones.
This map show the biogeographical regions of Europe and the main climate change impacts on the agriculture sector for each region. Source: EEA Report No 4/2019
The countries that take part in the ‘Game on!’ project — Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia — are located in the Continental, Boreal and Mountain regions, and the climate change effects expected for them are expected to be distinct and varied. For instance, in the Continental and Mountain regions, future scenarios portray an expected decrease in crop production, while in the Boreal region agricultural productivity might increase — in line with this, warmer weather could contribute to longer and higher-growth seasons, meaning that more crops could be harvested per year.
Agriculture is vast and diverse in what it can produce, and climate effects will impact distinct regions and each type of crop differently. For some European flagship products, this will be a crucial challenge to dive into. Take wine, for instance, a product strongly embedded in European history, society, culture, arts, and myths. What will become of its production? How will wine-producing countries be affected? Will they still be able to grow their grape varieties? Will some have to adapt their crops, and swap whites for reds in order to face new climate circumstances? Will new countries emerge as wine producers?
Needless to say, if you are a wine lover, don’t miss the next post on this blog series – as we tackle the expected effects and scenarios of wine production in times of climate change.
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