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The impacts of climate change on agriculture in Europe

Agricultural production is highly dependent on climatic conditions. Changes in average temperatures and rainfall, as well as extreme weather and climatic conditions, are already affecting agricultural and livestock productivity in many European regions (EEA, 2019).

Assessing the impacts of future climate change on the agricultural sector can be complicated since these impacts can be both positive or negative, depending on the species considered, the geographic region affected and a number of factors such as the physical impacts (caused by changes in temperature, precipitation structure and atmospheric CO2 concentration), changes in agro-ecosystems (loss of pollinators and higher incidence of parasites and diseases) and the adaptive responses of the systems.

In other words, analysing the effects of climate change involves evaluating the combined effects of changes in temperature, precipitation and atmospheric CO2 concentration, which, as known, affect yields and have different impacts across the European regions.

Potential positive effects linked to the increase in temperatures are expected in northern Europe especially, while a reduction in crop productivity and increased risk for the livestock sector is expected in much of southern Europe. Climate projections show that most of Europe will experience levels of warming higher than the global average; however, strong territorial differences are expected in all European regions (IPCC, 2018).

In general, the increase in temperature can cause an acceleration of phenological development, reducing the assimilation time of biomass and resulting in lower yields. In certain areas, higher temperatures will allow the cultivation of new crops/varieties. The expected changes in rainfall during the most important phases of crop development could counteract the negative effects of rising temperatures or, in other cases, exacerbate them.

Climate change in Life ADA areas

(Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Toscana, Lazio)

The analysis of the impacts of future climate change on the agricultural sector is complex since it involves assessments that must consider multiple factors and their interactions.

For a detailed, quantitative assessment of the impacts of climate change, it has been essential to produce case studies that focus on specific agricultural crops and specific geographical areas so that the analysis of the effects of climate change takes into account, to the extent possible, the combined effects of changes in temperature and precipitation structure which, as known, affect crop cycles and have different impacts across the European regions.

In particular, 10 case studies that analysed the 3 food supply chains of the ADA project (wine, fruit and vegetables and Parmigiano-Reggiano) in four Italian regions (Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Tuscany and Lazio) were presented. For each case study, forecasts for irrigation consumption and other agro-environmental quantities of crops linked to these supply chains were provided for the next 30 years (2021-2050), in relation to the climate from 1971-2000.

For the wine supply chain, 4 case studies representative of different geographical areas, vines and wines were examined: Romagna Apennines (Emilia-Romagna), Treviso Province (Veneto), Chianti Hills (Tuscany) and the Alban Hills (Lazio).

For the Parmigiano-Reggiano supply chain, the analysis of alfalfa and permanent pastures in the hills between Reggio Emilia and Parma was selected as a case study.

For the fruit and vegetable supply chain, 5 case studies were examined for 2 different crops in the main production areas located across the various regions: kiwifruit in the province of Ravenna, the province of Verona and the Latina area in Lazio; and tomatoes in the provinces of Piacenza and Grosseto.

The results of the analyses for each supply chain are shown below.

For more information on the study by
ARPAE – Emilia-Romagna, please refer to the full report:

“Report on the impact of climate change over the selected supply chains in the four participating regions”

The simultaneous increase in temperatures and drought periods could have negative effects on the wine industry, with an increased need for emergency irrigation (for all grape varieties) and potential negative repercussions on wine aromas (for white grape varieties).

Other possible consequences of the rise in temperatures linked to the phenological cycle must also be considered: early budding, with an increased risk of damage in case of spring frosts; early technological ripening (sugars and acidity) which risks not being in sync with the development of phenolic compounds (not occurring earlier), and early harvests, which can be problematic for the management of cellar operations, due to the high temperatures.

While for black grapes the greatest risk is linked to the need for more irrigation to prevent the berries from wilting, for white grapes climate risk also includes, in addition to the higher water demand, the loss of territorial suitability caused by the worsening of the organoleptic characteristics typical of wines produced from these varieties due to the effects of heat waves.

Nevertheless, the changes predicted in the 2021-2050 climate forecasts could bring some advantages to the supply chain: the reduction of rainfall could reduce the risk of fungal diseases and therefore the need for treatment, while higher temperatures could have a positive impact on the quality of black grape varieties in the northern areas.

As regards climate change in the wine production areas, although there is a marked increase in temperatures, especially in the summer period, and a decrease in rainfall in spring and summer across all areas, the regions located further south appear to be more exposed to the impacts of climate change, since these areas are already characterised by a warmer and drier climate, which is expected to worsen further.

For example, in Romagna, the Chianti Hills and the Alban Hills, the maximum average summer temperature will exceed 30°C in the future climate, with more marked consequences on the agrophenology and physiology of the plant with respect to the province of Treviso, where the average temperature is not expected to exceed this threshold. On the other hand, it should be considered that the organoleptic standards of the characteristic white wines of the Veneto area are more sensitive to even smaller increases in temperatures, having to maintain high levels of acidity and aromas.

Precipitation is also expected to significantly decrease in all of the areas studied, but these similar values (ranging from 50 mm to 70 mm decrease) will affect currently very different absolute values: for example, in the province of Treviso the decrease in rainfall will see summer values drop from around 240 mm to 170 mm, while the Monteleone area in Romagna will fall from a current 170 mm to 100 mm, meaning that expected rainfall in Veneto will be comparable to the summer rainfall currently recorded in Romagna. Moving further south, expected future rainfall is even lower with seasonal averages of 70 mm in San Miniato and 40 mm in Falcognana, making the effects of climate change comparable to southward shift of the current latitudes examined in the various case studies.

In light of the comparison of the effects of climate change in different areas, also considering the characteristic grape varieties and wines, future adaptation measures in the south will continue to focus on increasing the irrigation supply, while in areas where white wines with high acidity and aromas are produced, adaptation actions will be aimed at preserving these characteristics.

The crops currently used for animal feed in the Parmigiano-Reggiano production chain have a spring-summer growth cycle, seasons in which climate forecasts estimate the most intense variations in terms of increases in temperature and deceases in rainfall, phenomena already detected in the data observed, which both contribute to the increase in evapotranspiration and, consequently, irrigation demand.

Significant increases in irrigation supplies and improved efficiency of irrigation methods will therefore be necessary for these crops. A more complex adaptation action, concerning supply chain management, could be the search for replacement forage crops that grow in autumn-winter, a period characterised by a weather and climate trend that favours the development of crops without the need for irrigation return flows.

It should also be noted that the years with the highest irrigation demand generally coincide with the years with the lowest availability of water resources and therefore greater resource competition, such as in 2003, 2007, 2012 and 2017. In view of the increased frequency of this type of drought season, it is necessary to evaluate how to make the irrigation of permanent pastures more sustainable, first of all by abandoning the traditional irrigation method (flood irrigation) in favour of more efficient and sustainable irrigation such as sprinkling.

As regards the Parmigiano-Reggiano supply chain, spring and summer climate forecasts for areas in the district predict an intense variation due to both increases in temperature and decreases in rainfall, thus causing an increase in evapotranspiration and irrigation requirements. It follows that the conservation of this gastronomic specialty will depend on having a greater availability of water supplies and increased irrigation efficiency.

The cultivation of kiwifruit, which, unlike other fruit crops, remains sufficiently profitable, is affected by critical issues in relation to the specific physiological characteristics of the fruit such as its high demand for water. Until now this requirement has been met with territorial adaptation measures (ponds) and cultivation actions (improved irrigation techniques); nevertheless, the high irrigation demand continues to represent a risk factor for the spread of the crop in light of current and future climate change.

Calculations show that the most intense effects of climate change will have a greater impact on precipitation in both absolute and relative terms in southern areas.

In the case studies, in the Brisighella and Latina areas, which in the current climate already have significantly lower quantities of spring and summer rainfall with respect to the Verona area, a decrease of around 100 mm is expected based on future scenarios, compared to less than 50 mm in the Verona area.

Based on these considerations, the expected increase in water demand will reach the most critical levels in the Latina area (around 110 mm) in addition to an already abundant demand estimated at 360 mm in the 1991-2020 climate; a high demand for water is therefore expected, requiring a careful assessment of the environmental water supplies in the area.

Similar considerations, albeit with lower absolute values, also apply for the Romagna area, which is faced with a similar increase from current water requirements that are significantly lower than the Pontine Marshes, rising from around 300 mm to an expected 400 mm.

The expected situation for the Latina area concerning overall precipitation during the entire year does not appear to allow for any adaptation measures aimed at the conservation of autumn rainfall, since no significant positive anomalies are expected for this magnitude. On the other hand, in the Faenza area, which has already implemented adaptation measures such as farm ponds and basins for rainwater storage, these actions can be exploited since the future scenario predicts a further increase in autumn rains which, with appropriate infrastructures, will be able to meet a large part of the crop irrigation requirements.

Another major climate risk is the return of spring cold spells, which can cause considerable damage as in recent years. The frequency of these events, despite the general rise in temperatures, is not expected to decrease. This damage is a result of two concomitant trends: the increase in winter temperatures accelerates phenological development and causes the early onset of high-risk phenological phases (budding and flowering) and the increase of climatic variability in spring, again in the context of rising average temperatures, results in increasingly frequent cold spells.

Therefore, out of the three areas analysed, the Verona region presents the least critical issues since, with current irrigation needs lower than the Pontine Marshes and similar to the Romagna area, the predicted increase compared to the irrigation demand of the current climate is limited (around 30 mm). In addition, adaptation actions aimed at conserving autumn precipitations, which are expected to increase, can be implemented in this area if necessary.

The tomato is a very widespread crop in Italy and an excellence of the agro-industry. In 2021, consider that 38,621ha of land in northern Italy was allocated to the cultivation of tomatoes, of which 70% in Emilia-Romagna with processing in 25 factories which represent about 50% of the total production in Italy. In fact, tomato cultivation has found that Emilia-Romagna offers favourable pedoclimatic conditions for high yields and suitable characteristics for processing. Emilia-Romagna is the leading region in Italy in terms of cultivated area with approx. 27,000 hectares.

Current climatic conditions are still favourable for suitable crop development; however, there are climate changes risks such as heat waves that could cause damage to tomato cultivation. While greater irrigation requirements can be met by adaptation actions aimed at improving the efficiency of irrigation techniques and increasing the available water resources, heat waves cause problems of a different nature that are more difficult to address. Maximum temperatures that exceed 33-35°C for several consecutive days, combined with high irradiation can burn the berry and decrease pigmentation, making the product less suitable for processing.

In the fruit and vegetable supply chain, tomato cultivation has shown the smallest increase in irrigation requirements from the previous climate (1971-2000) to the current climate, which is also attributable to the shorter phenological cycle caused by the generalised increase in temperatures.

Similarly, irrigation forecasts also show modest increases for Podenzano and Grosseto, estimated at 30 mm and 40 mm respectively. In light of these considerations, water resources are not considered a critical issue, unlike the increase in heat waves. In fact, maximum temperatures, expressed as the number of days with maximum temperatures above 35°C, could be critical especially further south in Grosseto where an increase of 12 days is expected (from 2 days in the recent and past climate up to 14 days in future projections), while an increase of around 4 days (from 4 days in the recent climate up to 8 days in future projections) in expected in Podenzano. Therefore, climate risks for this crop are confirmed in the areas further south. The greatest risks of the expected climate change seem to derive more from the increase in temperatures than from the increase in irrigation requirements, and to a greater extent in southern areas than in northern areas. This increase in temperature affects the quality of the processed product since it can lead to an alteration of the quality of the berry.

Analysis of water demand in the Emilia-Romagna agricultural sector

The Emilia-Romagna plains cover an area of approximately 1,160,000ha and have a strong agricultural vocation. Net of all other land uses, the surface area classified as agricultural according to the iColt analysis (integrating satellite data, regionalised probabilistic seasonal weather forecasts, observed meteorological data and a soil water model) amounts on average to about 800,000ha. The crops that occupy the greatest surface areas are summer herbaceous crops, followed by autumn-winter herbaceous crops and grazing, alfalfa and permanent pastures. Fruit and vine cultivation has remained fairly stable over the years, accounting for 9-10% of the total area.

The distribution of crops is highly differentiated across the territory and some of these have a very high water demand, such as fruit crops in the Romagna area, tomatoes in the Piacenza area, permanent pastures for the Parmigiano-Reggiano sector between Modena and Reggio Emilia, and corn in Bologna and Ferrara.

In addition to these irrigation requirements, there are other demands that the various reclamation consortia must be able to meet even during other phases of the year: wetland maintenance, defence against late frosts (particularly in the Romagna area), irrigation for early spring crops and for greenhouses.

The Water Protection Plan of the Emilia-Romagna Region estimates total irrigation consumption in the region at around 800 million cubic meters per year, equal to 56% of total water consumption in the region. The iColt analysis of the trends of the last ten irrigation seasons (2011 to 2020) shows that there is strong variability in the interannual demand, with a range of -400 to +600 cubic metres per hectare, bringing absolute values below 500 million cubic metres in years with lower water demands (such as 2014) or up to 1200 million in the most critical years, such as 2012 and 2017. In these cases, the irrigation demand has strong competition for water resources from industrial use and the water supply for civil use, as witnessed in 2012.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of years with dry winter and spring periods, which lead to strongly negative hydro-climatic conditions at the start of summer, when the agricultural sector has a greater demand for water resources: in recent years this occurred in the winters of 2006/2007, 2011/2012 and 2016/2017. In some cases drought events are not uniform across the territory but have different characteristics, as in the case of 2017, which was more serious in Emilia than in Romagna. At the same time, the frequency of summer heat waves is increasing, which results in higher irrigation requirements and the early flowering of orchards, which in turn increases the risk of late frosts with a consequent increase in the irrigation demand for frost protection.

All of these elements show how the correct management of water for irrigation use, the reduction of supply losses, the selection of crops that are less water-intensive or more suitable for resisting climate change, and the availability of climate services for predicting irrigation demands, are and will be crucial in the years to come.

For more information on the study by
ARPAE – Emilia-Romagna, please refer to the full report:

“Analysis on the water needs in the agricultural sector in Emilia-Romagna”