23 March 2018 Representatives from LIFE projects converged on Madrid, Spain, on 13-14 March to discuss the impact of rising temperatures on agriculture and forestry in the Mediterranean. The two-day platform meeting drew on expertise from LIFE projects, EU policy makers, local authorities and stakeholders in the agro-forest sector to tackle the impact of climate change in an area notoriously exposed to its effects.

The event, organised by Spanish NGO Fundación Global Nature and supported by the European Agency of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (EASME) and the Directorate-General for Climate Action of the European Commission, singled out solutions to help farms and forests adapt to southern Europe’s shifting climate.

From extreme weather events to forest fires, climate change has hit the Mediterranean hard in recent years. According to the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change, the region is among the most vulnerable in the world to the impacts of global warming.

This is bad news for local farms and forests that depend on stable weather conditions to produce food and timber. Climate-driven drought, forest fires, rising sea levels, increasing salinisation and invasive pests are now threatening these resources and the livelihood of Mediterranean communities.

The meeting in Madrid took stock of the situation on the ground and sketched out the path ahead. Thaïs Leray from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Climate Action notably explained why it is urgent to both cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent unmanageable impacts in the future, while at the same time adapting to climate change in order to manage unavoidable ones.

Solutions on the ground

Her message resonated with an audience implementing climate adaptation measures in their daily work. In addition to the LIFE programme’s contribution to protecting the environment, Senior Project Adviser at EASME, Joelle Noirfalisse, reminded its funding beneficiaries of the role that they play in illustrating the EU’s support for people’s initiatives. “You are crucial in identifying challenges,” she said.

Researchers and conservationists also presented satellite databases, modelling tools and other high-tech instruments to help farmers and forest managers monitor changing weather conditions and climate trends on site. Dick Dee, Deputy Head of the Copernicus Climate Change Service showcased how the European Union’s Earth observation programme could help farmers and forest managers better adapt to the consequences of climate change, and tackle some of its causes.

“Farming and forestry are unique in that they both depend on climate conditions and can contribute to stabilising them,” said Nicola Di Virgilio from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development. Prominent examples figured among the projects led by members of the audience.

The LIFE Enerbioscrub project, whose work participants at the platform meeting observed on-site on 14 March, is reducing the risk of forest fires by removing flammable scrubs from Spanish forests and turning them into marketable fuels.

Photo: LIFE AGRI ADAPT
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Photo: LIFE AGRI ADAPT

LIFE AGRI ADAPT is testing ways of safeguarding 120 farms across Europe to increase the resilience of EU crops and livestock to climate change. Its results could help integrate climate adaptation into existing EU laws and funding rules, and raise awareness of its importance in agricultural circles.

These are just two examples of how the EU is helping its agricultural and forestry sector deal with climate change.  The platform meeting gave representatives from dozens of LIFE projects the opportunity to discuss best practices and share their insight with policy makers, government agencies, farmer and forestry associations, and industry.

Working groups

At the event, delegates met in working groups specialised on increasing the climate resilience of Mediterranean farms and forests, implementing adaptation policies and engaging with stakeholders.

Experts on farms and forests warned of rising threats from forest fires, water stresses, rising soil salinity, soil-eroding winds, and new pests and diseases spreading to the Mediterranean. These changes are already making forest ecosystems more fragile and reducing their productivity. Left unchecked, they could threaten economic output in the region and ultimately impact food security.

Working group participants reported that some farmers and forest managers are already responding to climate change by diversifying the crops and trees that they plant. Replacing monocultures with more diverse species can foster biodiversity and hedge against temperature hikes and water shortages. Turning farms and forests into generally healthier ecosystems makes them more resilient to changes in external conditions.

Photo: LIFE working group
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Photo: LIFE working group

Farms can further deal with symptoms of climate change by rotating crops, maintaining permanent vegetation to cover their soil and by adapting harvest calendars. Likewise, some forest managers are rescheduling felling dates and other field work to adapt their forests to new climates.

Technological solutions range from high efficiency irrigation systems, data-driven software to support farming decisions and early-warning weather forecasts are proving their merit. Field experts warn that long-term monitoring remains direly needed, if only to convey the value of innovative solutions to the largely traditional communities working in agriculture and forestry today.

Human factor

One working group focused on the social intricacies of this target audience in further detail, pointing out that although the views of farmers and forest managers on climate change has generally risen in recent years, the personality, age, job description and sector of activity still lead to marked differences in how land users react to this challenge.

Participants identified challenges in reaching out to tightly-knit communities, warning of a wide gap between research in agronomy and what happens on the ground. For the latest advances in science and technology to help farms and forests adapt to climate change, they must be first translated into user-friendly solutions to specific problems.

Photo: LIFE Enerbioscrub
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Photo: LIFE Enerbioscrub

In Madrid, field experts argued in favour of adapting existing tools rather than developing new ones as top-down intervention in the sector has led to a degree of innovation-fatigue. “One more website platform,” summarised one participant. “For what?”

Local associations and training programmes provide a more effective gateway to spread sustainable solutions among trailblazing farmers and forest managers. Through them, locals can act as pioneers, offering a more tangible example to their communities than external experts can.

Public sector touch

Where public administrations can support better engagement with farmers and foresters is through sound policy. One working group concluded that EU policy on climate adaption stands to benefit from a focus as clear for instance as with the EU’s measurable targets for mitigating greenhouse gases, safeguarding biodiversity or protecting fisheries.

Rolling out EU policies could also be smoother given more flexibility to take account of local needs. Weather conditions, geography and community traditions all contribute to how amenable, or even capable, farmers and forest managers are to follow guidance on climate resilience.

The last touch comes from well targeted financial incentives to scale up tried and tested solutions. Platform meeting delegates highlighted smart subsidies for insurance and eco-labels for climate-resilient goods as promising first steps. They also hoped that climate adaptation measures would gradually assume their place in major sectoral policies like the Common Agricultural Policy.

Further details on the platform meeting can be found in its programmeconcept notebackground paperpresentation slides or on the website of the AgriAdapt project. Stay tuned for the final report of the working groups that will come online in the coming weeks.

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