Driest July ever sparks fears of European crop shortages

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While much of Europe is in a third heat wave since June, fears are growing that extreme drought due to climate change in the continent’s granary countries will erode stable crop yields and deepen the cost of living crisis.

The European Commission on Wednesday urged EU member states to reuse treated urban wastewater as irrigation on the continent’s parched farms, after France and parts of England experienced their driest July on record.

In France, where an intense drought has plagued farmers and led to widespread restrictions on freshwater use, only 9.7 millimeters of rain fell last month, Meteo France said.

That was 84 percent lower than the July average level between 1991 and 2022, making it the driest month since March 1961, the agency added.

Farmers across the country report problems feeding livestock due to parched grasslands, while irrigation has been banned in much of the Northwest and Southeast due to freshwater shortages.

Environment Minister Christophe Bechu said the rainfall in July “represented only 12 percent of what is needed”.

France is the fourth largest exporter of wheat and is among the top five exporters of corn worldwide. Poor harvests due to drought could put further pressure on grain supplies after the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked global shockwaves.

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“Our food system has been under pressure for some time, and with the supply problems from Ukraine, it has only gotten worse,” said Shouro Dasgupta, an environmental economist at the Euro-Mediterranean Center for Climate Change.

“These heat waves are on top of droughts and will cause crops to wither more quickly.”

Dasgupta said extreme heat from climate change is also contributing to food price inflation for consumers and harsher conditions for producers.

“Droughts and heat waves affect people’s livelihoods. People will be able to afford less food,” he told TBEN.

“And during heat waves, field workers can only work fewer hours, which has a cascading impact on supplies.”

‘Food systems don’t work’

The UK’s Met Office said this week that much of southern and eastern England had registered their driest July on record.

Some water suppliers have already announced restrictions affecting millions of people, and fruit and vegetable growers have announced several crop losses, such as beans and berries.

UK inflation rose to a 40-year high in June as fuel and food prices rose.

Elizabeth Robinson, director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said rising food costs – exacerbated by heat losses in Europe and Britain – were a sign that “food systems are not working for people.”

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“There are some lengthy, difficult conversations that need to be had, especially about food waste and diverting grains away from food for humans to feed animals,” she told TBEN.

In Spain, already parched under a prolonged hot spell, temperatures will rise above 40C in several areas this week.

The heat is exacerbating the water shortages that have plagued Spanish agriculture since last winter, with local restrictions on water use in the worst affected regions.

The government said this week that Spain’s reservoirs have a capacity of just 40.4 percent.

Juan Carlos Hervas, of the COAG farmers’ union, told TBEN that Spain’s olive harvest from non-irrigated land will be less than 20 percent of the average for the past five years.

Spain supplies almost half of the world’s olive oil.

‘Worst drought this century’

Portugal, where temperatures again exceeded 40°C this week, is experiencing “the worst drought of this century,” Environment Minister Jose Duarte Cordeiro warned last month.

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Portugal, together with Poland, has asked its citizens to use less water to relieve pressure.

“Water authorities across Europe are unprepared for what scientists have been saying for three decades,” Dasgupta says. “A high incidence of heat waves will hit the water supply”.

The European Commission found in an updated assessment last month that nearly half — 44 percent — of the EU and Britain are currently experiencing “warning” levels of drought.

It warned that exceptionally low soil moisture levels meant that several countries, including France, Romania, Spain, Portugal and Italy, will experience reduced crop yields in 2022.

“The unfavorable forecasts for the coming months could put water supplies at risk and are likely to keep competition high for this resource,” it said.

A separate EU bulletin, also last month, said EU yields from soybeans, sunflowers and maize were already 9 percent below average.

On Wednesday Virginijus Sinkevicius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Oceans. urged EU countries to reuse more of their wastewater.

“We need to stop wasting water and use this resource more efficiently to adapt to the changing climate and ensure the security and sustainability of our agricultural supply.” he said.

(TBEN)

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