September 27, 2023

As the world recorded its hottest-ever day on July 6th, the UN warned that the El Niño weather phenomenon is back after seven years and will continue to cause intense heat and other extreme weather events.

The ocean-warming phenomenon is characterized by warmer than average sea temperatures; while generally concentrated in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean the events can be felt globally. As Michelle L’Heureux, a scientist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, explained, “Depending on its strength El Niño can cause a range of impacts, such as increasing the risk of heavy rainfall and drought in certain locations around the world.” This, coupled with already unpredictable weather due to climate change, is forcing farmers around the world to buckle up and adapt to ever-changing conditions like drought, flash floods, decreasing water reservoir levels, and other troubling developments in the climate.

The drought-like weather conditions have already arrived in many southern European countries. According to the EU Joint Research Center’s latest report on droughts in Europe, the current situation “raises concerns for water supply for human use, agriculture, and energy production.” In Spain, the numbers are a striking indicator of the impact of climate change–a predicted lack of regular rainfall and an increase of 2 degrees Celsius would cause Spain to lose 7% of its GDP.

The prognosis is worrying, especially when one considers that the advent of El Niño this year could push global temperatures into uncharted territory, pushing the world over a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise compared to pre-industrial levels, putting us on track for catastrophic climate change. This puts farmers in the rather unenviable position of living with climate change and El Niño–all while feeding the world in increasingly complex conditions.

Farmers adapting their methods to changing circumstances

Farmers aren’t blind to their critical role in the food production chain. Javier Fatás, from Spain’s Coordination Committee of Farmers’ and Breeders’ Organizations, said: “We have to remember that over the last 50 or 60 years, the world’s population has tripled and that we have an obligation, so to speak, to feed this world’s population.” Facing this increasingly complex task, farmers are being forced to adapt their methods to embrace not just nature but also technological innovation.

Farmers like France-based Eudes Coutte are an example of what can be done when innovative digital technologies are adapted to nature-based solutions. Five years ago, Eudes and his brother decided to start planting sorghum, a cereal little known in Europe but with several important advantages–naturally gluten-free, in much of France sorghum crops do not need to be irrigated, require no pesticides, and dramatically less fertilizer than other staple crops. “Sorghum allows for a new kind of agriculture, more sustainable, as it preserves resources,” Coutte explained. “We must think about tomorrow’s agriculture, and how we can produce food without massive water use.” This means not only choosing the right crops but also using technology-centric agriculture 4.0 methods like micro-irrigation.

It’s clear that European farmers are not lacking creativity in the face of challenging environmental conditions. What is disappointing, however, is the fact that they seem to be going at it alone. While the European Union has historically been a proponent of significant pro-agriculture legislation, the bloc has not chosen to concretely implement measures towards helping farmers adopt agriculture 4.0 practices with investment in technology that would make adapting to climate change easier and more efficient.

Does the EU have its priorities right when it comes to agriculture?

Thus, while farmers battle to eke out a livelihood in these hostile meteorological and environmental conditions, the European Union has decided to legislate in policy areas that are making things even more difficult for agricultural producers. One pertinent example? The intense debate over front-of-label packaging (FOP) labeling, for example, has left producers worried that their products will be penalized–worse yet, at little benefit to European consumers.

The EU is seeking to harmonize FOP labeling across the bloc, ostensibly to provide consumers with the visibility needed to make healthy choices. But the results have been less-than-impressive–and the danger to European farmers is significant. For a long time, the front-running FOP label was Nutri-score, developed in France and adopted in a number of countries. Nutri–score has failed to impress, however, even after numerous supposed ‘fine-tunings’ of the system’s algorithm.

The repeated tweaks of the Nutri-score algorithm only underline concerns that the system is not scientifically rigorous, and could mislead consumers. As a result of the persistently flawed algorithm, consumers are not only at risk of being misled about products’ healthfulness, but industrial products like frozen pizza stand to benefit while traditional products, such as protected-origin cheeses, stand to receive poor scores. This could be devastating to producers of traditional agricultural products, such as Europe’s dairy farmers–already hurt hard by sinking prices, fertilizer and feed shortages, and, most notably, the effects of climate change, such as the drought and other extreme weather roiling Europe.

Rather than concentrating on questionable agrifood priorities like FOP labels that will make things harder for already-struggling producers, Brussels should turn its attention to helping farmers adapt to shifting climate conditions. A good place to start would be water management, which the EU has highlighted as a policy priority, focusing mostly on the avoidance of agricultural water pollution (including nitrate pollution).

Massive farmers’ protests which brought the EU Quarter to a standstill in March have made it clear that the agricultural sector needs concrete support to achieve these pollution reduction goals. European farmers need investment and subsidization of precision irrigation solutions like drip irrigation. Most irrigation systems in the EU still use spray guns and spray booms, which are very inefficient due not only to the water lost through the runoff but also evaporation. Drip irrigation could be a valuable solution not just for the farmer but also for the environment–however, the price of adopting new technologies can often be prohibitive for small family farms already struggling to make ends meet, meaning external financial support.

With the El Niño phenomenon exacerbating Europe’s existing climate concerns, this kind of support will be increasingly important to preserving the agricultural industry which is a pillar of Europe’s economy–the agricultural sector contributes some €222 billion to the EU’s GDP, slightly larger than Greece’s entire economy–as well as its social fabric.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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