Giving thanks for our crops

2022 has been a difficult year for the European crop harvests. Fears continue to grow over a potential global food security crisis as European farmers struggled to save their crops from extreme weather events and to keep up with the trade disruptions resulting from the conflict in Ukraine.

Climate change challenging crop harvests
As much of Europe baked in the summer heatwave, concerns were growing about what is being dubbed ‘heatflation’ – climate change-driven staple crop losses that could see already inflated food prices reach new highs by autumn, deepening the cost of living crisis.

A lack of spring rainfall, combined with drought and freak storms, have spoiled crops in Italy, France, and Spain with many farmers and agricultural associations warning that this year’s continental crop yields would be significantly smaller than usual. Already, continental yields of crops such as soybean, sunflower, and maize were 9% below average, according to an EU Crop Bulletin published in August.

In Italy, water shortages and drought led to a drop of as much as 45% in corn and animal feed yields, and a 30% reduction in wheat and rice production according to the Italian farmers union. The drought has also affected the country’s fruit and milk production, which was down between 15% and 20% as a result of heat stress, leading the Italian government to declare a state of emergency in several regions. The Italian agricultural sector has also been affected by a rise in production costs resulting from the conflict in Ukraine. This has created fertilizer shortages, a situation compounded by poor infrastructure management, and water losses of around 30% from the supply.

Meanwhile, in France, a combination of unusual summer heat levels, together with hailstorms, strong winds, and torrential rain, have affected fruit, cereal, and wine production in departments across the country. France is currently Europe’s third largest wheat exporter after Russia and Ukraine, but after the driest July on record, it is expected that this year's crop yield will be down significantly from 2021. France’s corn harvest is also expected to be 18,5% lower than in 2021 according to figures released by the French agricultural ministry. French dairy farmers also warned of a coming milk shortage and parched grazing areas, a situation not helped by a ban on irrigation in large parts of the country due to water restrictions.

Food prices escalating
Scientists are already pointing to climate change as the main driver behind this worrying phenomenon, a situation worsened by ongoing trade disruptions resulting from the conflict in Ukraine, and problems in China, where the agricultural industry has also been affected by heatwaves.

Analysis of weather data by experts at the European Commission (EC) suggests that much of the problem across Europe has arisen from lower than usual winter-spring precipitation levels (19% of the 1991-2020 average), leaving little soil moisture content for young plants to draw upon during their early growth stages, a situation exacerbated by summer heatwaves. According to climate change experts, escalating food costs are a sign that food systems are not working well. Just three crops, wheat, maize, and rice make up nearly half of the world’s food supply. All are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions like drought and heat which has been widely seen during 2022 across Europe.

Leon Vaessen

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