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Climate change is forcing farmers to adapt – but in which direction?

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The farmers in Rhineland-Palatinate expect disadvantages rather than advantages from climate change. “From today’s perspective, the dangers for agriculture are greater than the opportunities,” says Eberhard Hartelt, President of the Rhineland-Palatinate South Farmers and Winegrowers Association. By nature, agriculture cannot adapt as quickly as it might be necessary, for example with regard to breeding that is resistant to pests and fungal infections. “To make matters worse, in Germany and Europe a certain hostility towards innovation is developing towards modern breeding methods – methods that are wrongly equated with classical genetic engineering.”

Agricultural expert Herbert Netter from the Rhineland-Nassau Farmers and Winegrowers Association also sees the dangers of climate change as greater than possible benefits. Breeding certainly enables a certain amount of adaptation, but extreme weather events are increasing dramatically. “As a rule, these cannot be compensated,” explains Netter. “The drought period from 2018 to 2020 was a catastrophe for many – especially forage farms – that has continued to affect us today.”

Since climate change has many faces, farmers are in a bind. “We have seen in recent years that we are dealing with an extreme spread in climate change,” reports Hartelt. On the one hand, there has been a very pronounced drought over the past three years. “This year, on the other hand, was very wet and significantly cooler.”

One year, farmers would need drought-resistant plants that can tolerate the Mediterranean climate, the next year they would have to be frost-tolerant like plants from northern latitudes. “As a farmer, I have never come across plants that can do both – that is, they have a high degree of frost tolerance and resistance to cold, and also have resistance to heat and drought,” emphasizes Hartelt.

It is therefore an illusion to believe that the farmers in the Rhine Valley should simply grow olive or lemon trees because of increasingly drier and hotter summers, because there are also cold and wet years, says Hartelt. There is also only limited sense in growing soybeans widely. “That will work in certain zones of the Rhine plain. But due to the climatic and soil conditions, we are predestined for growing grain.” Soy grows better in South America.

According to Netter, research and cultivar breeding must help farmers adapt to developments. For example, farmers could rely on cereal crops that are more drought-tolerant, but that too has its limits. In principle, the farms could increasingly implement soil-conserving and erosion-reducing farming methods. “But that mustn’t lead to conditions again,” he warned. There are always events for which “plowing is the method of choice”.

Crop rotations that lead to increased humus build-up could make sense, but would also have to be economically feasible, says Netter. “After all, the farmers have to make a living from their work.” There are areas in Germany where there is almost a total ban on organic fertilizers. “Manure helps to build up humus and make the soil more sustainable.”

Association president Hartelt has been working in agriculture for almost 50 years and has learned to humbly submit to the weather. “We can’t change the weather, we can change the climate,” he emphasizes. Agriculture can also contribute its share to climate protection, although it is smaller than that of industry and transport. He cites an increase in CO as examples2-Soil storage and efforts to increase biodiversity.

Netter would like politics to have more foresight instead of “often absurd requirements”. In addition, the federal and state governments would have to support and intensify research in the field of climate-adapted cultures. It is also important that the advice remains state and thus independent.

In the area of ​​climate adaptation, the Ministry of Agriculture relies on changed sowing dates due to changed vegetation times, a targeted selection of varieties taking into account older and more resistant plants and digitization of agriculture. According to the information, investments that serve to reduce emissions, such as exhaust air purification systems, special techniques for spreading liquid manure and storage facilities for liquid manure, are particularly subsidized. The same applies to projects with which agriculture can protect itself from damage caused by natural disasters and adverse weather conditions, such as frost protection irrigation and hail protection nets.

Despite all the threats to agriculture from climate change, the Ministry of Agriculture believes that there are also new opportunities such as the testing and introduction of climate-adapted crops such as soybeans or millet. With these species, due to the higher temperatures that prevail, greater biomass production per hectare is possible, explains an agricultural expert from the ministry. At the same time, the diversity of the fruit species will be increased. An earlier start and a longer duration of the growing season could increase the yields of arable crops. Heat-loving plant species such as melons benefited from climate change and expanded the range of options in vegetable growing, says the expert.


(bme)

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