Organic Consumers Association

Global Climate Change Damaging Farm Crops in Europe


August 21, 2003

Feast and famine in Europe as global warming scorches farms

By Robert Uhlig Farming Correspondent

PROPHETIC warnings of how global warming will play havoc with the world's agriculture appear to be coming true, according to evidence from this year's harvests in Europe and America.

The long weeks of sunshine might please holidaymakers and promise a vintage year for vineyards, but the persistent drought has reduced yields by up to a quarter in many parts of Europe for major crops such as wheat, sunflower and potato.

With many of the crops used as livestock feed, the shortfall is thought likely to have a knock-on effect on meat prices.

But more worrying than a likely increase in bread, vegetable and other food prices is that the effect of the European heatwave on agriculture almost perfectly matches predictions of the consequences of global warming for the next century.

A harsh winter and late spring frost in much of Europe this year were followed by a heatwave that started in June, causing crops to develop up to three weeks too early for their ripening and maturing stages, when there was insufficient soil moisture.

Scientists working for the European Commission said their advanced crop yield forecasting system is predicting substantial drops in quality and quantity for key crops, particularly in central and southern Europe.

They predict the sunflower harvest will be down by 25 per cent, green maize by 10 per cent, sugar beet by seven per cent and wheat by 6.6 per cent. Maize and sugar beet production has been cut by a quarter in Italy, while wheat yields have fallen by a third in Portugal. In Britain, the wheat harvest is down by about five per cent. Latest estimates are that around 15 million tons will be harvested, leaving a surplus for export of only about two million tons.

Across Europe, the shortfall is so great that the European Commission has suspended licences for the export of wheat to cope with demand and to suppress a bull market on wheat futures that saw prices rise by almost 10 per cent last week.

But output has risen in northern Europe, said the report from the EC's Joint Research Centre in Brussels.

Warmer weather than usual has boosted sugar beet yields by a quarter in Ireland and by up to five per cent in Denmark and Sweden, while oilseed rape output in Finland has increased by 12 per cent.

Jorgen Olesen of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Tjele and Marco Bindi of the University of Florence in Italy forecast just such a shift in productivity last year.

Their analysis predicted that agricultural output would soar in northern Europe as the region becomes warmer and wetter and crop growth is fuelled by increased carbon dioxide levels.

But in southern Europe the forecast was for droughts and lower crop yields, with agriculture ceasing altogether in the most parched regions.

"With drier conditions in the south it will be difficult to maintain dairy production, for example, and there will be parts of southern Europe where agricultural production is no longer viable," said Dr Olesen.

"If there's competition for water, urban areas will probably win over agriculture."

In America, scientists at the Joint Global Change Research Institute are predicting that rainfall will increase on the east and west coasts, especially towards the end of the century, while some central states will become so dry that they will be unable to support agriculture at all.

The scientists expect global warming to deliver better yields to American farmers as a whole, but said that the central states of Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska could suffer crippling droughts.

Both the European and US experts warn that the recent heatwave was a foretaste of changes to come, New Scientist reported.

"It's dangerous to push these things under the carpet because we need to start planning now for the impacts of climate change," said Dr Olesen.

"It's not too soon to begin building a more resilient agricultural system."

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