Agriculture in the Mediterranean and Adriatic regions is threatened by climate change, especially in relation to the increase in the occurrence of droughts and heatwaves. Destructive rains, violent hailstorms and devastating winds are additional factors reported as climate-related threats for the region. The projected increase in extreme temperature, droughts and extreme weather events is expected to further increase the risk of crop losses throughout Europe. These changes highlight the need of developing crops that are more resistant and better adapted, especially to water deficit conditions, extreme temperatures and adverse weather events. The use of adapted crops, with species and varieties better resisting to these conditions can be an efficient adaptation strategy to cope with the climate change.
Cereals, pulses and pastures in rain-fed areas, as well as orchards (including olive groves) and vineyards in irrigated areas are the most spread and distinctive crops in the Mediterranean climate regions. There are evidences that annual crops, like cereals and legumes, suffer from water deficit, especially during the flowering and grain filling stages, with a reduction of the number of grains per spike/pod and a reduced grain weight. Moreover, the yield and quality of cereals and seed crops (such as pulses and oilseed crops) can be reduced by high temperatures affecting a number of physiological and metabolic processes. In the case of vineyards, future temperature increases may change the timing of grape ripening and the harvest date, and may affect the yield and quality of grapes and wine. Therefore, as reported by the EEA report 4/2019, cultivation of typical local crops (olive trees and grapevine) in specific climatic niches in the Mediterranean region can be affected by the climate change.
The use of adapted crops and varieties is suggested by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) among the climate-smart practices for risk reduction, soil and water conservation, and efficient water management. The use of adapted crops and varieties helps to reduce the negative impacts of the climate change on agricultural systems and, at the same time, to ensure a stable agricultural production.
Adaptation of crops can be obtained through the introduction of new crop varieties or bringing back heritage crops with positive effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The use of adapted crops can support crop diversification, which is included as a key element of the conservation agriculture approach. It also strengthens the ability of the agro-ecosystem to respond to biotic and abiotic stresses, and reduces the risk of a total crop failure.
The selection of different and new crop varieties can be achieved through traditional genetics that, historically, is the science that has been used in agriculture for centuries to improve the quality and quantity of production for human consumption, mainly based on empirical selection of crop varieties. The development of technologies and new selection methodologies able to select species more tolerant to climate stress may help identify key features that limit crop yield and key elements of vulnerability, improving predictive capacity in tolerance to climate change. As reported by FAO, the plant breeding efforts usually involve multi-locational trials and aim at developing crop varieties that are resistant to climate stressors (adaptation) and are also more efficient in their use of resources to reduce their environmental impact (mitigation). High-throughput genotyping and phenotyping platforms are used to make the processes for developing crop varieties, including pre-breeding, more efficient.
The implementation of this adaptation option, as for other climate-smart crop production measures, is easier if it is market-driven and fully integrated into markets. Moreover, this option requires a wide multidisciplinary approach (including agronomists, physiologists, molecular biologists, sociologists, economists), and the collaboration between researchers and farmers, with the provision of clear messages and instruments to policy makers and stakeholders.
For the Adriatic area, within the Interreg Italy-Croatia, the GECO2 project (2019-2021) investigates into adaptation and mitigation measures in the agriculture sector with the objective of setting up an innovative interregional system in the Adriatic region to monitor the climate change, experiment with eco-friendly agricultural practices and launch a new voluntary carbon market.
COSTS AND BENEFITS
The cost of implementing this measure depends mainly on the price of the seeds of the adapted crops or varieties, and on the required investment costs (if any) on the farm (e.g. buying new type of machinery). Moreover, while the costs of introducing new annual crops are quite contained, the introduction of new tree species or varieties could involve higher investment costs, increasing consequently the risk for the farmers.
The main benefits of the introduction of new species and varieties are higher or stable crop yields and farmer incomes owing to the better adaptability of the crops to the environment in which they are grown, and the increased resilience of cropping systems to climate-related risks. Moreover, introducing a range of crop species and varieties leads to diversification of agricultural production that can generate positive effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services provision, although these co-benefits may require time to manifest themselves.
Synergies with mitigation can also be evidenced, since the cultivation of adapted crops and varieties can improve soil carbon storage by accelerating atmospheric carbon sequestration. A shift from annual to perennial crops and the use of crops with deep root systems (such as maize, wheat, barley) can accelerate atmospheric carbon sequestration and storage. Combination with other associated good agricultural practices (precision farming, use of cover crops, minimum tillage, etc.) and market systems (favouring local products commerce) can significantly enhance the mitigation potential of this adaptation option.
IMPLEMENTATION TIME AND LIFETIME
One year is needed to change cultivated varieties of annual crops and obtain production, while for tree crops several years (decades) are necessary for the plants to reach the maturity and become profitable.
The process of selecting new species, more resistant to climate risks can be slow and depends on research and technological readiness levels. Transferring such technologies to farmers can require additional time and can encounter possible resistance of farmers to change. The ability of developing not only technology but also strong governance structures and policy incentives to individual farmers, networks and common systems of innovation can create a favourable environment for adaptation among farmers.
Lifetime is related to the economic convenience of the cultivation of the selected crops and varieties.
SOURCE FOR MORE DETAILED INFORMATION
EEA (2019). Climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in Europe. EEA Report 4/2019
Del Pozo et al. (2019). Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies of Agriculture in Mediterranean-Climate Regions. Sustainability 2019, 11(10), 2769