Long Periods of Drought Endangering the Food Supply

Long Periods of Drought Endangering the Food Supply

The drought from 2018 to 2020 was the worst in the last 250 years. This is the finding of researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. As a result of climate change, future droughts could last for as long as 20 years, which would have profound consequences for agriculture and the world’s food supply. Meanwhile, countries like Switzerland are still ill- prepared for the threat of such droughts.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger is reporting on the impacts that future drought periods would have on agriculture. The recent drought from 2018 to 2020 left European soils drier than almost ever before. According to the researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, approximately 36 percent of Europe’s land area was affected by the dry conditions. Oldrich Rakovec of the UFZ told the Tages-Anzeiger that “no other drought in more than 250 years extended over a land area as large as this one.” In addition to the extreme dry weather, temperatures were also remarkably high. The study authors explain that previous droughts were accompanied by rather cold temperatures. This was not the case during the 2018 drought. The average temperature was 2.8 degrees Celsius higher than the average recorded over many years. And soil moisture diminished more quickly than had ever been previously observed. The drought reached 80 percent of its intensity in only four months.


Impacts on agriculture

The extreme heat and dry conditions had far-reaching effects on agriculture. In Switzerland the wheat harvest declined by ten percent, and in Germany by 17.5 percent. The Benelux countries recorded a drop in the maize harvest of more than 40 percent. The researchers led by Rakovec say that droughts in the future could stretch over even longer periods of time. Climate simulations suggest that periods of drought in the year 2100 could last for as long as 20 years if Earth’s average temperature rises by five degrees above pre-industrial levels. If that happens, more than 60 percent of Europe’s land area would be impacted. But even if temperatures were to increase by “only” 2.6 degrees, the effects on agriculture would still be severe.


Preparations still insufficient

A recent study proved for the first time that the soil in Switzerland is becoming drier in summer. “In particular, the spate of dry summers since 2003 is a cause for concern,” said climate researcher Stefan Brönnimann of the University of Bern in the Tages-Anzeiger. This will increasingly pose problems for agriculture in Switzerland and have long-term impacts on the security of food supplies. Agriculture, food production, water supply, and ecosystems will all be affected. Swiss politicians have not yet adequately recognized the extent of the problems, and preparedness for future droughts is still lacking. The infrastructure needed to mitigate the effects of drought, such as water reservoirs and storage facilities, is often not available. New technologies are needed in order to cope with future extreme droughts and heatwaves. Solutions include intelligent forms of irrigation technology and breeding of heat-resistant crops.

Such technologies do exist. One of them is the TEgenesis method for breeding stress-resistant plants. The method is based on the knowledge that plants are capable of learning. They adapt to new environmental conditions over the long term. However, if a plant is only temporarily exposed to a changed situation, a learning blocker is activated in the plant. It does not cause the plant to change. TEgenesis allows the plant to temporarily bypass its learning blocker. The plant learns to adapt quickly to new conditions. Plants that are bred using this technique require less of resources such as water, because they are resistant to stress and unfavorable conditions. While the technology may already exist, TEgenesis is covered by the Genetic Engineering Act in Switzerland and its use is not currently permitted. The time has come for the Swiss Federal Council and Federal Administration to recognize the urgency of the situation and move forward.

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