'Very scary': European agriculture hit hard by climate change and drought

BARCELONA — With Europe suffering through an extreme drought worsened by climate change that has dried up rivers and left millions sweltering in triple-digit heat this summer, farmers across the continent are sounding warnings about crop losses.

"Our vines are suffering," said vintner Xavier Collart Dutilleul, who, with his wife Pascale, runs Château Mazeris Bellevue near Saint-Emilion in southwestern France. Lacking rain, the organic vineyard’s parched clay-rich soil is "almost as hard as cement," he told Yahoo News, and he predicted that his harvest, which typically yields enough for 35,000 bottles, will be down by 30% this year.

In Northern Italy, there was little winter snow this year and even less springtime rain, and extreme summer temperatures have evaporated what little moisture remains. Just as rivers across Europe have all but dried up, the Po river, a major source of irrigation in the river’s fertile valley, is a trickle and the normally marshy rice paddies it irrigates are brown and cracked.

"We have no water," Fabrizio Rizzotti, a seventh-generation rice farmer, told Yahoo News. "The plants are curling up and dying in the fields." This year, he expects his harvest of carnaroli rice, favored for risotto, to be 30% of what it was last year.

This year, the grape crop at Château Mazeris Bellevue in Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac, France, is down by 30%.
This year, the grape crop at Château Mazeris Bellevue in Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac, France, is down by 30%. (Pascale Collart Dutilleul/Château Mazeris Bellevue)

In Spain, which provides nearly half the world’s olive oil, Agricultural Minister Luis Planas last week warned that "this year’s olive harvest could be notably lower than previous ones." Spain's Association of Young Farmers and Ranchers (Asaja) predicts that olive yields will drop by a third. "We are in a very bad situation, with a fundamental water deficit in our agriculture," José-Luis Miguel, technical coordinator for Spain's largest agricultural group COAG, told Yahoo News. He also said that restrictions on irrigation and scant rainfall have meant that "many crops have not been able to be planted or have had to be replaced by others with less water needs." Grain production, for one, is down by 25%, he said.

"What's happening this year is very scary," enologist Ton Mata, third-generation owner and CEO of the Recaredo vineyard in Spain’s cava region, Alt Penedès, told Yahoo News. "We have little rain and a very long, dry, hot period with three heat waves. We are seeing that the grapes are very small and weigh less." Although the harvest is just beginning, he's sure that the yield will be down by 20% to 40%.

This summer, Europe is breaking all kinds of records, from high temperatures to low precipitation amounts. Nearly two-thirds of the territory in the 27-country European Union is either dealing with drought or is poised to enter one. The European Drought Observatory this week said that 47% of the EU territory was in warning conditions while 17% was "under alert," meaning that vegetation is stressed due to lack of water. The countries most affected — France, Spain and Italy, as well as Germany — are those that produce the bulk of Europe’s food, a fact that means prices for European commodities are sure to soar this fall and winter.

Climate expert Jorge Olcina, professor of regional geographic analysis at Spain’s University of Alicante, told Yahoo News that what is happening across Europe is "further evidence of the process of global warming" — and he expects it to continue. "The trend is clear. We've failed to reduce the level of greenhouse gases we put into the Earth's atmosphere and the process of heating continues its unstoppable process."

One of the rice fields dried up and can no longer be cultivated in Vespolate, Italy.
One of the rice fields dried up and can no longer be cultivated in Vespolate, Italy. (Davide Bertuccio for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Barcelona hydrologist Jesús Carrera, a professor of research at the Spanish National Research Council, foresees "a severe reduction in precipitation throughout the Mediterranean." But the main problem, he said, is not only "that there will be longer and more intense droughts, but there will be also very wet periods. So obviously, the way to manage this is to save water from the wet periods."

It's not just blistering summer heat and water shortages that are reducing food supplies — it's the strange weather in general that's been plaguing Europe for over two years that has farmers and climatologists concerned. "These last years have been crazy," said Penedès-based agricultural consultant Montse Boldú Giménez.

Seasons when rain usually comes are instead dry; when the skies open up, they dump torrents that wash away topsoil. A late spring frost destroyed many of Spain's fruit crops, and hailstorms, like the one a few weeks ago that wiped out a vineyard next to Château Mazeris Bellevue, are becoming more frequent. "The hailstones were as big as eggs," said vintner Collart Dutilleul.

Last year, a fluke blizzard hit central Spain, blanketing olive groves in Toledo in 5 inches of snow, and two weeks of below-freezing temperatures killed a quarter of the zone's oldest olive trees.

"We've been observing changes for many years — but now it's more obvious. You can see it everywhere," José Antonio Peche Marín-Lázaro, managing director of premium olive oil producer Casas de Hualdo, which lost 250 acres of olive trees in that storm, told Yahoo News.

He said that locals who are 80 or 90 years old and have worked in the fields their whole lives often tell him they don't remember anything like the weather of recent years. "And when you look at the olive trees here in this area, some of which are 200 years old, that have survived for such long periods, but now, this weather is threatening their survival, that definitely means that something has changed," he added.

The changing weather patterns are forcing many Europeans to rethink centuries-old farming practices.

"Some crops will have to alter their production cycles, and irrigation systems should be improved to increase their efficiency," said Olcina, who views climate change not only as "the most important issue we're facing," but also "as an opportunity to get things right."

 Po's dry riverbed;  parts of Italy's longest river and largest reservoir of freshwater have dried up due to the worst drought in the last 70 years.
A view shows Po's dry riverbed during the worst drought in the last 70 years, in Malcantone, near Ferrara, Italy. (Gabriele Pileri/Reuters)

Indeed, some food producers already are starting to change. Casas de Hualdo has put underground moisture sensors into its olive groves and has installed a more effective subterranean drip irrigation system and solar panels to power it. Mata's Recaredo vineyard is trying out different grapes that are better suited to unrelenting sun; it is changing rootstocks to varieties "that need less water and that go deeper into the soil" to allow vines to get more water. Recaredo is also using biodynamic practices, with ground cover in its vineyard that encourages more worms to aerate the soil. At Château Mazeris Bellevue, they are also trying out different grapes that are more resistant to heat and drought.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of "The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook" and owner of an olive grove in Tuscany, isn't all that anxious about this summer's diminishing crops. Olives and grapes can survive droughts, she pointed out to Yahoo News, and vineyards have suffered disasters like the wave of phylloxera that wiped out many French vineyards in the 1800s. "I think there'll be plenty of olive oil and plenty of wine for my grandchildren," she told Yahoo News. What she is concerned about is how climate change will change their world. "They have to worry about keeping cool in the summer and rising sea levels" — along with droughts. "Those are much more critical issues to me than olive oil and wine."

Despite this tumultuous summer, hydrologist Carrera isn't sure the public or politicians are grasping the need to change. "Society only reacts when it's hurt," he observed. "It doesn't hurt enough yet."