Climate crisis forcing Europe to reconsider food security
After the catastrophic climate conditions of last summer, Europe has now also lived through a winter drought, with affected farmers on the continent’s front lines searching for urgent solutions amid fears that unseasonably warm winter weather could lead to another summer of discontent.
Analysis from Brussels’s Copernicus programme has set off alarm bells over dry soils stretching across the southern parts of the continent, from France, Italy and Spain to Turkey, record-low rainfall is pushing Europe’s rivers, canals and lakes to disturbingly low levels – none of which bodes well for farming yields. Despite heavy rains in March, in April the soil in France in regions like Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur was already in a state of drought as it generally is in June. Emmanuel Macron has already announced a summer of sobriety, as well as restrictions to manage increasingly scarce water resources.
With experts warning that climate change will continue to fuel drought conditions that threaten European farming, bold action must start now. Tackling this emerging crisis will require a combination of innovative digital technologies and breeding methods to ensure food security while boosting European agriculture’s climate resilience and mitigation.
Italy’s innovative anti-drought approaches
While governments and farmers may be tempted to increase irrigation in order to combat drought, this may not be the best solution. Excessive and inefficient irrigation actually increases the levels of salt in soil, which directly effects plants and lowers agricultural production.
Modern intensive farming methods make excessive use of environmentally disruptive inputs like conventional irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers, which deliver higher short-term yields but at the dire cost of long-term soil erosion. This leads to a vicious cycle in which these harmful practices are ramped up to keep eroding soils at productive levels. To break this cycle, Europe’s farmers can take advantage of advances in science and technology and look to emerging innovative techniques that will not degrade arable land.
In Italy, for instance, forward-thinking agriculturalists have shown how new technology-based agricultural methods, like micro-irrigation, and smart cultivation enable strong and sustainable production.
Using a mixture of age-old and modern techniques, Italian entrepreneur Gaetano Buglisi has managed to pull 1,000 hectares of abandoned and severely degraded farmland in southern Italy back from the brink. After the soil’s high salt content had left the ground essentially baren, Buglisi identified and invested in varieties of exotic fruit, such as mangoes and pomegranates, that were uniquely adapted to growing in these less-than-inviting conditions. What’s more, with the assistance of advanced digital technologies, he has also employed precision agriculture methods, such as micro-irrigation, to help optimise water usage and curb the soil salinisation effect of modern, intensive irrigation.
Similarly, the Giacovelli family, which produces wine in the Puglia region of southern Italy, is using so-called Agriculture 4.0 techniques while replacing older varieties of grapes with new ones that are easier to colour and grow on land increasingly threatened by the wrath of climate change. This combination of cutting-edge farming techniques and older methods, today known as regenerative agriculture, is allowing the Giacovellis to keep up with soaring production costs by reducing inputs and increasing yields of new, in-demand grapes that are raising the export profile of this promising farming region.
The gene-editing debate
The ongoing drought is adding urgency to the already-heated EU debate on whether gene-edited crops should be regulated differently than genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Experts are advocating the use of new strains of gene-edited crops that are capable of surviving the punishing heat waves and drought sweeping across Europe. However, the EU has been cautious about the use of GMOs in the past, fearing the effect such plants can have on ecosystems and population health. While the European Commission has recently hinted its support of gene-editing techniques, these technologies still elicit fierce opposition. But where critics lack firm scientific evidence to justify their gene editing fears, encouraging results are emerging from the other side of the aisle.
Agriscience industry leaders such as Corteva as well as pioneering researchers have highlighted the benefits of techniques such as CRISPR in boosting yields via drought resistance genes and reducing agricultural inputs. Furthermore, the World Economic Forum notes that scientists have used CRISPR to create disease-resistant crops that can cope with extremes of heat and cold.
Researchers have also increased the size of rice, wheat and maize grains, with important implications for food security. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California are using CRISPR techniques to develop varieties of rice and sorghum that are not just adapted to the climate crisis, but actively combat it by capturing and storing atmospheric carbon in the soil, thereby helping to restore soil health and improve farming yields.
How the EU can help
In order to combat climate change and support the agriculture sector’s climate resilience, the EU must ensure that these innovative technologies and techniques are made accessible to all participants in the agricultural sector – from small farmers to industry giants. Small farmers, for instance, face a “skills gap” in accessing new technology-based farming techniques such as digital farming and precision farming.
The EU can fuel the transition to climate-resilient farming through the combination of a science-based, innovative regulatory environment and robust funding and technical support schemes to assist farmers. Encouragingly, there are signs that the climate crisis is forcing the EU to see the light. EU agriculture ministers are already advocating for the bloc to relax rules on GMOs to allow the use of gene-editing in the combat against drought and declining soil fertility, while the European Commission has argued that existing EU gene-editing legislation is not keeping pace with scientific developments.
If the extreme weather of the past year has made one thing clear, it’s that the climate crisis is not going away. As Europe’s winters and summers continue getting hotter, putting its beleaguered farmers increasingly under the gun, Brussels needs to ensure the stability and security of the continent’s food supplies. And given the urgency of the situation, the most promising, innovative technologies and techniques in the farming world must be rapidly deployed rather than simply intensifying environmentally destructive methods.