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Large regional differences in agricultural adaptation to future climate change in Europe

by Doreen Ware
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Agriculture, Food & Farming News

We are already experiencing it. Heat waves and droughts hit large parts of Europe during the summertime, particularly in the southern part of the continent. Winters have become milder and more wet in the north. Both are trends that will continue in the future and will affect our agriculture and not least food security.

But has it already affected the way we farm? What changes are being seen in practice in different parts of Europe? And what does the future hold for European agriculture? A group of researchers from 24 European research institutions, led by Aarhus University, has investigated this.

“So far, only data from field experiments and different crop models have been used to assess different measures to adapt to climate change. But this approach has its limitations, so we have gathered knowledge from a wide range of experts across Europe, in 15 European countries to be precise,” says Professor and Head of Department Jørgen E. Olesen from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University.

More precisely, Jørgen E. Olesen coordinated the collection of expert knowledge and assessments of ongoing and planned climate adaptation measures. The results have now been published in the European Journal of Agronomy.

“We simply consulted experts from all over Europe — both those behind desks, but especially those with rubberboots on and dirt under their nails. We’ve asked them what changes they’ve seen in the cropping patterns and management of some of the most important crops in Europe. We also asked them to comment on whether the changes they are experiencing are related to climate change,” says Jørgen E. Olesen.


Large regional differences

Five crops were the starting point. Wheat, oilseed rape, maize, potatoes and grape wine are among Europe’s most widely grown and important crops, so they were a natural choice for the researchers to map changes in crops, cropping patterns and, not least, how much of the change can be attributed to climate change.


“We can see that there are clear regional differences in both observed and projected actions for all five crops. And it’s perhaps not surprising that we see these marked regional differences,” says Jørgen E. Olesen, who points out that even though Europe is not so geographically large in a global perspective, climate change still affects the continent in very different ways.


In northern Europe, the timing of field work has changed and new crops and varieties have been introduced. According to Jørgen E. Olesen, one of the most significant changes in the future will be a longer growing season.


“Temperatures are also rising in northern Europe, and the changes are particularly pronounced during the winter months. It will be milder and wetter. With higher temperatures, the growing season will be extended both in spring and autumn,” he says, pointing out that northern Europe will experience far less consequences compared to the climate changes further south.

Central and southern Europe are already adapting to climate change. And, according to Jørgen E. Olesen, they need to be as climate change here is manifesting itself in extreme heat, drought and erratic rainfall.

Focus on water in the future

“Basically, we are going to see more drought and higher temperatures in southern and central Europe, and we can see that people are already starting to make adjustments in terms of water and soil management. We can also see that new crop varieties with better drought tolerance are being introduced, so that they can cope better.

Actions have already been taken and more are planned, but we must also be aware that this will be enormously difficult to adapt to. In the future, rainfall will be more erratic in these regions and we cannot imagine crops that can grow without water. The physiological conditions for plants are just such that they need more water at higher temperatures because the evaporation pressure will also become higher,” he explains.

Changes in cropping patterns and different adaptations have been observed in all the regions studied, but not all can be attributed to climate change. In general, most adaptations due to climate change are found in the Mediterranean region.

Measures must be adapted to regional conditions

According to the researchers, more advanced approaches to integrated pest management and early warning systems are needed across Europe now and even more so in the future, but it is important to be aware of the differences in risks and extremes in different regions. Changes in timing and methods of field management, fertilisation, plant protection and new methods of soil moisture conservation are expected to become prominent adaptation measures across Europe.

“We can see that there is already a focus on climate adaptation in many parts of Europe, but I have to stress the importance of improving water management, both in terms of drainage and irrigation, but also in preserving the water in the soil and landscape. This will require changes in the landscape, revised environmental rules and measures and possibly subsidy schemes as part of adaptation, particularly in southern Europe,” says Jørgen E. Olesen.

The study shows that, particularly in Southern Europe, measures are already implemented and planned to help secure the future of food production. But more needs to be done, according to Jørgen E. Olesen, it is not just water scarcity and high temperatures that will cause problems for future agriculture in Europe.

“Weeds, plant diseases and fungal infestations are also going to cause problems, so we need to work on that too. And here we have another challenge in that we have to phase out pesticides at the same time. Another problem will be insects, which thrive in higher temperatures.

It will be demanding for our cropping systems, and we need to find new ways to design them to limit the damaging effects of insects,” says Jørgen E. Olesen. He points out that there is simply a need for an agricultural policy focus on all the challenges that European agriculture will face and that this cannot be achieved by an overall EU policy alone, but that a regional focus is needed to take into account the marked differences in how climate change will affect different regions of Europe.

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