At the fertile foothills of Mount Etna, Andrea Passanisi surveys his avocado grove under Sicily’s blue skies. He started growing the tropical fruit in what used to be his grandfather’s vineyard and, helped by the warming climate, is now sending his produce across Europe.
Passanisi discovered a love for avocados on a trip to Brazil as a teenager two decades ago, and decided on his return home to experiment with growing them in Sicily. Abandoning plans to become a lawyer, he converted his grandfather’s land and started to farm avocados as well as passion fruit and lychees, alongside longstanding lemon trees.
“My grandfather grew wine grapes but it’s become too hot because of climate change. This side of the mountain is too hot for grapes, you have to go further up,” he says. But it has proven to be perfect for tropical fruits, which has led entrepreneurial growers to turn to produce including avocados and mangos.
Climate change is shifting the frontiers of where food is grown as farmers and agricultural businesses adapt to warmer temperatures around the world. While in some regions heat and drought are threatening the cultivation of certain crops, raising food security concerns, in others, the warming climate has allowed growers to cultivate new crops and varieties which in previous decades would have been difficult to produce profitably.
The 37-year-old is among several growers in Sicily turning to tropical fruits. Global warming has sparked a 1C increase in the island’s temperature over the past 30 years, according to Francesco Viola, associate professor at the University of Cagliari, who has researched the island’s climate and the Mediterranean ecosystem.
Many farmers in Italy are grappling with a heatwave, after temperatures hit 45C in parts of the south of the country in June, part of a long-term shift, says Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti, Italy’s farmers union. “Every year we see longer periods with high intense temperature and tropical weather,” he says.
From the mangoes, avocados and bananas that grow alongside oranges and lemons in the south to olive oil from trees growing in the Alpine mountains in the north, the frontiers of crops in Italy are shifting, says Prandini. Italian farmers have seized “the opportunities, as evidenced by the arrival of the first tropical fruit crops in Sicily and the cultivation of olive trees in the Alpine valleys in Lombardy,” he says.
Many farmers who have not been able to grasp that opportunity have gone out of business over the past 10 years, says the union.
With high levels of rainfall and humidity, Passanisi has found that the microclimate of Giarre, where his farm is located, is ideal for tropical fruits. Now producing about 1,400 tonnes of avocados a year, he is exporting his fruit along with fellow Sicilian farmers, who joined the sector encouraged by his success.
Many studies of how climate change is affecting different crop yields show that viticulture — the cultivation of grapevines — is an area where warming temperatures are reshaping the wine-growing map.
Wine grapes are like the “canary in the coal mine for climate change” because of their responsiveness to temperature shifts, say researchers.
“They are among the most phenologically sensitive crops,” says Elizabeth Wolkovich, associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada. According to her research with colleagues, 2C of global warming in the coming years would render 56 per cent of the world’s wine-growing areas unsuitable.
Food’s new frontiers
The frontiers for grapes grown for wine have shifted north both in Europe and North America. Canada, for example, has made big strides as a pinot noir producer, say wine connoisseurs. Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley are leading the way, according to Mark Thornton, a London-based wine curator.
“Pinot noir is an extremely temperamental grape,” says Thornton, adding that the rising temperatures have meant that the quality of wine produced in Canada has “improved tremendously”. “In the Okanagan Valley, the number of wineries has grown from around two dozen in 1990 to over 200 now.”
The UK, along with countries such as Denmark, is now part of the northern wine frontier in Europe. Henry Warde, whose family has been farming in Kent, south of London, for 300 years, turned part of his 2,500-acre farming estate into vineyards in 2006 after a visit from French champagne house Duval-Leroy.
After a scorching summer in France in 2003 led to overripe grapes, champagne makers started looking for alternative areas to produce grapes. “The soil in Kent is similar to champagne soil and they liked the climate conditions,” says Warde. After doing full due diligence of the Warde family’s Squerryes estate, the champagne house pulled out, which led to Warde and his father deciding to plant vines themselves. “We haven’t looked back since,” he says.
Warde says when his 81-year-old father started farming in 1963, they would harvest grains from early to mid-September. This has been pulled forward by about eight weeks, stretching from July to the beginning of August. Average temperatures in the south-east and central England for the past 30 years are almost 1C higher than that of 1961-1990, according to data from the UK’s Met Office.
Centuries of grape harvesting data make it easy to spot the climatic changes. Big shifts happened during the Medieval Warm Period (950 to 1250AD), and the Little Ice Age that followed, as well as the period after volcanic blasts in Indonesia in the 1800s. But none of those have had the same impact on harvests as the events of the past 40 years, says Wolkovich. Higher temperatures have meant much earlier harvests, and the trend is “dramatic”, she says, adding that “it’s a train that’s gone off the track”.
The changing climate led some champagne houses to invest significantly in southern England over recent years. Vranken-Pommery has a vineyard in Hampshire while Tattinger has set up a winery in Kent. The UK industry has seen numerous new entrants, most of them offering sparkling wines, and vineyard acreage has quadrupled since 2000, according to WineGB, an industry association.
If warming and emissions continue at current rates, Britain could be 5C hotter by the end of the century, according to Paul Ritchie, a scientist at Exeter University who researched UK agricultural land use changes amid unmitigated climate change. While the climate is expected to become hotter and drier, higher CO2 levels and photosynthesis activity in plants could mean that overall growth in crop productivity could increase in the UK, he says.
Russia’s emergence as the world’s largest wheat producer is partly due to climate change. With milder winters, farmers have been able to plant more winter wheat, sown in the autumn and harvested the following summer, which has higher yields than spring wheat, according to Andrey Sizov, managing director of SovEcon, a Moscow agriculture consultancy.
Russia has been consistently producing more than 60m tonnes a year of wheat since 2015, becoming the number one grower and exporter. “[Warming temperatures] are the biggest drivers of increased production in Russia,” he says.
When Evgeniy Agoshkin heard from a friend three or four years ago that he was moving north to grow wheat from the Central Black Earth region, the bread basket of Russia, he thought the friend was crazy. “He said, ‘you know, here, it’s very risky’,” says the Russian agricultural business owner, who until recently grew grains in Voronezh, in the south of the country.
However, after several tough years with low levels of rain leading to falling wheat production, Agoshkin has sold his farm and decided to follow his friend north to Ulyanovsk, 850km east of Moscow. He has bought just under 25,000 acres in Ulyanovsk to grow crops, pointing to the government’s agricultural statistics which show rising harvests in the country’s northern areas.
“Climate change is not just talk. I was sceptical initially and thought it was a news topic. I thought that there was no problem. But I’ve noticed the weather is becoming less predicable and precipitation is lower,” Agoshkin says.
‘Climate bomb’ threat
Two countries — Canada and Russia — account for more than half of new global agricultural frontiers, according to a study published by the Public Library of Science, a non-profit publisher.
“Agriculture has been limited by climate but we’ll see a huge expansion over the next century,” says Lee Hannah, lead author of the paper and a senior researcher at the environmental NGO Conservation International. “Agriculture is going to be shifting across the face of the world . . . The big change is expansion in Russia and Canada.”
Growing crops in these areas will increase global food production, important given that some experts calculate that the world will need 70 per cent more by 2050 to feed a population expected to increase by 2bn over the next 30 years. But, Hannah warns, it could also unleash a “climate bomb” with the release of additional greenhouse gases from the previously untouched peaty soil. The impact on water and biodiversity will also be devastating, he adds.
Hannah, who has been researching the climate change impact on crops such as coffee and wine as well as bees, which are crucial to agriculture, says the emissions impact will come down to Russia and Canada. “You only have to get policies right in two places. Stop seeing these northern areas as wastelands that need to be subsidised to be developed,” he says.
Governments need to start focusing on sustainable development, otherwise “we’re costing ourselves”, he adds. “There is a responsible [way to] increase food production that minimises climate change damage, and there is unplanned, irresponsible [subsidised] agricultural sprawl that endangers the planet. We want the former!”
Researchers warn that the shift in the climate will have a disproportionate impact on the food security of poorer countries. Many of those nations that never experienced the “Green revolution” of the 1960s — when crop output in developing countries increased thanks to new varieties and a wider use of pesticides and fertilisers — will be hit the hardest, says Paolo Agnolucci, a researcher in energy and resources at University College London.
Using data models for 18 crops, including wheat, corn and rice, Agnolucci and his colleagues found that countries which already enjoyed high yields for a certain crop tended to benefit from a 1C rise in temperature, while countries with a less efficient agricultural sector will be hit harder. Wheat production in Germany, for example, would rise about 3 per cent if temperatures rose 1C, but would fall about 7 per cent in Egypt, a large wheat consumer.
“These are exactly the results we didn’t want to see,” he says, adding that to avoid a food security crisis, technology and skill transfers as well as funding for smallholder farmers would be crucial for these countries and “should be part of the policy discussions”.
Back in Italy, while climate change has brought its benefits to some farmers, it has also wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of others.
“The increase in temperatures is changing our work with the crazy seasons and extreme weather events [which are becoming] more and more frequent,” says Coldiretti’s Prandini, adding that in 2020 “there were on average four extreme weather events per day in Italy including storms, hail, heatwaves and tornadoes”.
Sicilian avocado farmer Passanisi says that dealing with the new climate uncertainties is tough. “It manifests itself with the seasons that do not respect their [own] characteristics,” he says, noting that the “winter” in Sicily, which used to arrive in December, now comes in February, and the autumn rains were now coming months before that. “I started the idea [of growing tropical fruits] with climate change in mind, but then I realised the uncertainties that climate change [brings],” he says.
The Mediterranean is a climate change hotspot, with southern European to north African countries facing severe declines in rainfall over the next few decades, according to scientists.
“Temperatures in Sicily have been increasing, but at the same time, there has been a decrease in rainfall. The increase in temperatures means you can grow tropical fruits like mango or kiwi, but these crops are very water demanding.” With some exceptions, Sicily’s agricultural areas need irrigation, presenting a big problem, says Viola.
At the Kent wine estate, Warde is also wary of unpredictable weather patterns after an unusually cold start to spring in the UK, followed by a month of rain.
Yet he remains sanguine about the volatility. “We’re learning all the time,” he says, adding: “You have an extremely cold April, and a wet May, but you put that into a milkshake machine, and as my father says, ‘it all evens out in the end’.”
He remains confident of the long-term future of the business, noting: “I wouldn’t have planted the vines if I didn’t think it was going to be around for the next 100 years.”