Extreme temperatures keep affecting wheat production in Europe

Yet another year, climate change shows its effect more vividly on European summer. Extreme temperatures have devastated corn fields in North Europe, while a combination of droughts and high intensity rains on the Black Sea area have plunged production estimations, with the consequent potential of a price raise.

France, main EU producer, has also been experimenting extreme meteorological situations, which forced analysts to take their production estimations down to 34 million tons, almost 3 million less than last year.

As we follow harvest path to North Germany (second biggest corn producer in the European Union, right behind France), more and more evidence of damage on the crops arise, leading to a reiterative cut on the production forecasts for the EU joint corn output.

“Situation is catastrophic in northern Europe” recently said Andree Defois, president of Strategie Grains, the company of reference regarding grain and oilseed markets in Europe.

The consultancy cut off again few weeks ago its estimation for soft wheat’s harvest in Europe for the year, setting it under the 130 million tons, which is a six year minimum, and Defois confirmed that most likely it will be revised again.

Map of droughts in July 2018, JRC European Drought Observatory

Poland wheat production is also struggling: droughts at the beginning of summer and the effects of the recent heatwave mean that the country’s production may fall over 8%, to a total of 10.7 tons, according to Wojtek Sabarinski, analyst for Sparks Polska.

In the meantime, United Kingdom prays to have it better than its neighbours, has also estimated that this year’s output will be a 5 years low.

The Scandinavian and Baltic regions have not been able to escape this weather craziness either: for instance, Sweden’s production has fallen around a remarkable 40% so far.

European prices have risen over 15% in the last month, reaching its peak price in the last 4 years: 208.5 €/ton, in consonance with an increasing concern worldwide regarding wheat supply.

Thus, the repercussion of European situation it’s going to be noticed all around the globe. Considering that the EU as a collective is the main wheat producer in the world, and that the forecasts for production have fallen for the main four producers (France, Germany, UK and Poland), shortage in supply or a very noticeable increase on prices to readjust equilibrium may be expected.

The implications of this situation are very straight forward: the price rice in such a basic product as wheat will definitely be felt throughout the agro-alimentary sector. While clearly being bad news, both for Europe and for consumers, we can only hope governments take note of the “not-so-gentle” pushes that nature keeps on giving us. Global warming is becoming everyday a more tangible problem, and the longer we take to seriously tackle it the more it will cost us.

The evolution of agriculture: how we lost productivity, efficiency and stability of our fields

Nowadays, the agricultural sector is ruled by the industrial approach: fields are factories guided by the rule of business. Nature does not play the main role anymore.

We expanded our production to places that are really not adapt for growing crops. Every year we lose huge amounts of fertile soil, destroying its capacity both in terms of productivity, efficiency and resilience. That led to a continuous expansion of the farmland with a decreasing productivity, that involves problems of space and food production for the whole planet.

Regarding the loss of resilience of the soil we are simply increasing the use of pesticides. Since 1945, pesticide use has risen 3300 per-cent and is still supposed to increase, given that pests are developing resistance to our new powerful chemicals.

At the same time, due to the loss of fertility and capacity of our soil, we also have to face the problem of productivity (crop losses have increased 20 percent over the same period). In order to do that, we have introduced fertilizers and we are employing an endless quantity of them. That is also absurd considering that we could avoid all these problems  simply living the nature and natural ecosystems play their original role.

Moreover, imposing our artificial knowledge over the original experience of the nature, we are replacing plants with hybrid ones, genetically modified by humans. Because of their hybrid nature these new plants couldn’t pass their genetic traits on the next generation, meaning that every farmer will be supposed to buy hybrid seeds instead of planting seeds from the plants he/she eats. In this way we will progressively lose the wide variety of different species that originally existed, replacing them with an unique – and generally poorer – type.

We switched to a system of farming that mimicked industry, not nature. As a result, the leading force in farming is making profit. Nowadays, we are not growing food to sustain ourselves anymore: we are growing so much food it became a surplus – an export item and a political tool. Food is produced not in the most suitable place but in the country which has the most significant market power, able to produce with the lower cost and in larger quantities. That’s the case of some Italian brands of pasta which used to import wheat from Canada. Passing over the transportation costs and the environmental concerns linked to a so displaced production, what is really surprising here is that Italy has the best weather conditions for the production of wheat but it is still importing it. So, the question is: why does Canada have a so significant market power in the production of wheat? Why, speaking about the agricultural sector, the natural landscape and the weather features of a country are less important than its market position? Isn’t food production supposed to be related to the nature and the surrounding environment more than to scale economies, capital and profit making capacity?

Janine M. Benyus, in her book “Biomimicry – Innovation inspired by nature”, presents two interesting data about the agriculture industry. First of all, because of pesticide residues, agriculture is defined as the number-one polluting industry in U.S.; the biggest concern is about groundwater, contaminated by pesticide and nearly impossible to clean. Recent studies have shown that people who get in touch with these pesticide residues have higher than normal risks of developing illnesses, such as leukaemia, lymphoma and other cancers.

Secondly, mainstream agricultural techniques are currently less efficient than how they used to be in the past. The input-production ratio moved from 1:4 in 1990 to the current value of 1:1,5; even if we are producing much more now than in the past, the efficiency of our production has strongly been impaired by the adopted practices of farming.

That’s only a brief explanation of the problems linked to monocultures and the men’s attitude of imposing themselves on nature. Solutions are available, new ideas are spreading and there is some hope for improvement in the future. Actually, that would also be our unique chance to get over the problem of food production and climate change in general. But, as Janine M. Benyus states in her book, this may be just “the storm before the calm”. The system is not sustainable anymore, not even stable or optimal and we are now in the position to move on and revise the funding principles of our production system.

Agrisource : an Open-Innovation Platform for Climate-Smart Agriculture

With 10% of the world facing food and water scarcity, any viable solution to meet the challenge of global food production must extend beyond field-level problems and encompass a wider, science-based approach.

The main practical problems encountered across the entire seed-to-shelf spectrum are:

–          lack of communication and transparency between the players of agriculture

–          needs for advice, knowledge and actions

–          need of better life cycle evaluations for the value chain.

These problems have also been strengthened in the context of deep climate change.

How to solve the problem?

Agrisource aims at bringing together all actors (businesses, institutions, associations, farmers…), stimulate debates on innovative technologies and technics, and act as a catalyst for new local or international projects. It is a mine of resources for those who seek information, and a network hub for those who come with an idea.

In order to do that, an Open Innovation Platform has been created for the purpose of encouraging a more efficient innovation into the agricultural sector by sharing best practises, experiences, knowledge and information. That may also be seen as a place where to spread and discuss strategies regarding both the reduction of GHGs emissions and the adaptation of the agricultural practises to climate change. At the same time, value chain players may also influence each other in the decision making processes and, finally, share the risks of changing food systems.

Data are collected using specific sensors and intelligent data collection devices, combined with hundreds of other data inputs, including satellite and drone imagery. Multi source data are used to monitor the full spectrum of agricultural and operational activity and solve specific agriculture and business problems (such as increasing brix in grape and sugar cane crops, optimizing irrigation scheduling for water sustainability). In this way, both yield and revenue are increased by improving crop health, food quality and safety, but also wages and profitability.

These data are then combined with advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning. Armed with this information, that provide a full range of economic, climate, infrastructure, and operational insights, officials in government or enterprise farm management teams can optimize water, electricity, nutrient, chemical, and fuel usage and make more informed forecasting and investment decisions in order to maximise the final output.

AgriSource is the Europe’s first open innovation platform for climate-smart agriculture, operating with the support of the CSA Regional Boosters, an original initiative from the European Climate-KIC, that focuses on CSA solutions on specific business areas.

The platform is still young and launching and there’s a lot to do to make it completely intuitive and efficient. The operating team from the INRA, the CIRAD, and the startup eKoal – as the lead developer, Marc Nougier claims in an interview for Daily Planet – is facing the challenges of now spreading the use of AgriSource by all kinds of users and in order to do that, the first step required is that users subscribe, contribute, bring their input… and their feedback on things that can be improved.