'Great uncertainty about how climate change will affect us'
European farmers lost more than €11bn in one single summer due to drought, and they better prepare for more as extreme weather events such as heat waves are on the increase, climate change experts have warned.
Stark figures presented at the Teagasc 'Future Weather- Future Farming' conference show that the 2003 summer heat wave cost farmers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Austria a combined total of €11.5bn.
Phillip O'Brien from the Environmental Protection Agency told the conference that grain losses in the 2003 and 2010 summer heat waves amounted to 20pc of the grain harvest in affected regions of Europe and 30pc of the total harvest in Russia.
Similarly, cereal production fell by 40pc in the Iberian Peninsula during the intense 2004/2005 drought and drought in Finland cost €100m in 2002/2003 when water had to be transported by tanker to more than 1,100 farms.
But while the focus is often on the impact of drought on grain production, Mr O'Brien pointed out that the biggest losers in a heat wave are livestock farmers.
"In 2003, the drought cost €4bn in total but €1.5bn of that cost was to the beef sector through a drop in fodder production and the increase in feed prices," he explained. "It was the same in Germany and Italy, where the livestock sectors suffered most financially.
"Despite this, all the EU analysis and policy is focused on croplands in southern Europe. It's all about developing irrigation and the growing of staples such as cereals as temperatures in the traditional growing areas increases," the climate change expert pointed out.
Mr O'Brien warned that climate change models showed that rising temperatures could dramatically affect agricultural production in southern Europe.
"The projections are that areas where plants and animals are stressed will expand by the middle of the century," he said. "Stressed animals are those whose appetite gets depressed, making them less productive."
By the end of this century, climate models show a deepening of the crisis. "There could be areas of southern Europe where it will be very difficult to engage in livestock farming at all," said Mr O'Brien.
While most climate change models and experts agree that southern Europe will become drier and northern Europe will become wetter, they have come up with wildly different predictions for Ireland and Britain. Some models predict that changes in temperature and water availability by 2080 could cut Irish crop yields by 5-15pc, while others are predicting the complete opposite -- a 5-30pc jump in crop yields.
"Ireland is geographically on the fringe of Europe and it is positioned on the edge of an ocean so there is great uncertainty about how climate change will affect us," Mr O'Brien explained. "We hope that we can develop more refined climate change models that eliminate uncertainties to give us a better picture."