It’s So Hot, They’re Growing Mangoes in Italy | Kanebridge News
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It’s So Hot, They’re Growing Mangoes in Italy

Problems faced by farmers in the Mediterranean offer a preview into the challenges of feeding a warmer planet

Thu, Jul 27, 2023 8:33amGrey Clock 5 min

EBRO DELTA, Spain—So much seawater is seeping into the paddy fields of this prized rice-growing region that Montserrat Sérvulo is considering replacing at least some of the crop with seaweed and clams.

“There is too much salt here,” said the 56-year-old farmer, standing on the edge of a field where she used to grow rice until last year. It is now filled with patchy grass and mud. “Last year wasn’t a good year, but at least we had something.”

Rising sea levels, dry spells and heat waves are disrupting food production in the Mediterranean, a region whose diet is regarded as a cultural treasure.

This year, prolonged drought and the scorching heat have hit agricultural production especially hard, wreaking havoc from the olive groves of Spain to the wheat fields of Algeria, reducing yields and pushing farmers to consider switching to hardier crops.

The recent heat wave has affected food production in other ways, too. Cows are producing less milk and bees are less willing to forage for pollen, with honey production down 70% compared with last year in Italy, according to Coldiretti, the country’s agricultural trade association.

Fields on the Ebro Delta are particularly vulnerable to the warming climate.

The climate is changing faster in the Mediterranean than in most places on Earth. Average temperatures here have already risen by around 1.5 degrees Celsius since the dawn of the industrial age, more than in all other regions except the Arctic. The problems farmers face in the Mediterranean offer a preview into the challenges of feeding a hotter planet.

The Ebro Delta, where paddy fields are spread over some 20,000 hectares of land, is so vulnerable because it is coming under the twin pressures of rising sea levels and drought.

Seawater from the Mediterranean is reaching deeper inland than it used to, and there isn’t enough freshwater from the Ebro River to flush out the excess salt from the fields. Because of a prolonged drought, the river was running so dry this year that, for the first time ever, the water supply to the delta was interrupted for long stretches of time.

The result is what some farmers here say is shaping up as the worst harvest they have ever seen. “If we manage to harvest 30% of what we did last year, it will be a lot,” says Sérvulo, who grows rice varieties used to make beer, breakfast cereal and the local specialty, paella.

Short-term solutions include processing more wastewater and covering up canals to limit how much water evaporates. Creating buffer zones to counter coastal erosion, such as through artificial beaches, could also help. But that won’t solve the problem everywhere.

“In some areas, rice production isn’t feasible anymore,” says Carles Ibañez Martí, head of climate change at Eurecat, a Barcelona-based research centre, who has studied the Ebro Delta. “You can fight it to some extent, but adaptation has its limit and at some point you can’t adapt any more, you have to change.”

How close this turning point is depends on how fast the sea levels and temperatures rise. In the rice-producing areas of northern Italy the drought has been so acute this year that some farmers have already planted soybeans, which require less water, instead.

Scientists aren’t optimistic. The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the effects of global warming in the Mediterranean Sea’s coastal countries are likely to intensify in the coming decades.

Scientists at IRTA, the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology of Spain’s Catalonia region, are helping farmers adapt to climate change, including by studying fish, seaweed and clam varieties best suited to replace paddy fields in the wetlands of the Ebro Delta.

“We are developing the technology so that when there is need, we can easily transfer it. We need to have data from two-three years of production cycles to show [farmers] it’s a credible, feasible opportunity. If not, they will abandon these areas,” said Enric Gisbert, who oversees the aquaculture division of IRTA. “What is happening here will probably happen in other deltas of the Mediterranean.”

The IRTA has also developed a new breed of apple designed to withstand higher temperatures. Similar studies are happening elsewhere. In Israel, researchers recently developed a new variety of drought-proof tomato.

The drought is stressing the poorer southern rim of the Mediterranean, where economies are being forced to import more wheat and other food staples. In Algeria and Morocco, fields of wheat, barley and other staple crops along the country’s Mediterranean coast have turned yellow well before harvest time, dried out by a persistent lack of rainfall.

“There is no water. We can’t work,” said Mohammed Bahout, 80, whose family grows wheat and barley west of Algiers, in a region between the coast and the Algerian highlands that is the country’s bread basket. He used to grow tomatoes and other vegetables, but the lack of water forced him to grow less water-intensive staple crops instead.

“If the good Lord doesn’t send water, we’re finished,” Bahout said.

Some are trying to make the most of the changing climate. In southern Italy, farmers are growing tropical fruit such as mangoes.

The cultivation of fruits such as bananas, mangoes and avocados has increased threefold in Italy over the past five years, and now covers some 1,200 hectares of farmland in Italy’s southernmost regions of Sicily, Calabria and Puglia, according to Coldiretti.

In northern Italy, the warmer weather has enabled the large-scale production of tomatoes and olive oil—crops that until 15 years ago were a preserve of the peninsula’s central and southern regions.

“An increase in one or 1.5 degrees Celsius means we can now cultivate things such as wheat in northern Italy. But if the rise in temperature is followed by heavy rains and hailstorms with hails as big as tennis balls, that becomes a lot more complicated,” said Lorenzo Bazzana, who is in charge of economic analysis at Coldiretti. “Adapting to climate change isn’t so simple.”

In the Languedoc wine country in southern France, vineyards have been stifled by months of drought and now a heat wave. Lack of rain leaves grapes small and shrivelled, while heat can raise a wine’s alcohol content and dull the characteristic flavours of a terroir.

Languedoc, which stretches along the Mediterranean near Spain, is one of the French regions most at risk from rising heat and longer periods of drought.

“We have rarely seen a period this long without rain,” said Christophe Bousquet, president of Languedoc’s wine growers group. “The grapes aren’t very pretty. There are a lot of them, but they are extremely small.”

Languedoc wine growers are searching for ways to protect their livelihood from the growing impacts of climate change. Bousquet, who owns a vineyard in La Clape, a territory on the Mediterranean, is allowing the grass to grow around his vines to hold more moisture in the soil when it does rain.

They are also looking into planting different grape varieties that can better withstand drought and heat. That is a risky change, Bousquet said, and new vines take years to grow—time he says they don’t have.

“The problem is, time is against us,” he said. “The evolution of the climate in the Mediterranean is happening much faster than anticipated.”

José Bautista contributed to this article


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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