Extreme drought threatens Italy’s rice crops—and its beloved risotto

Prized rice varieties used for risotto are grown in northern Italy’s normally flooded paddies, but record heat and drought are causing devastation and consternation.

By Jonathan Moens
Published 25 Jul 2022, 09:26 BST
rice-field-novara
Luca Rizzotti regulates the flooding of his rice paddy in Novara, Italy, on June 23, 2002. He's trying to save at least part of the crop from drought. Lack of rainfall has required farmers to sacrifice part of their rice crops to rescue some.
Photograph by Mauro Ujetto, NurPhoto, Getty Images

Massimo Saronni walks across his rice field, each step a loud crunch. This field should be flooded with water, flourishing with four-foot emerald green blades and golden rice panicles. Instead, the plants have taken on a yellow-brown tinge and the soil has hardened from lack of rain. Small patches of survivors dot the field, but they only reach his ankle.

“These crops are seriously damaged. They haven’t had water, so they’re not going to make it,” says Saronni, who has worked as a rice farmer for over 30 years. He cultivates different rice varieties, including carnaroli, a high-starch rice prized in Italian cuisine for the creamy risotto it makes.

Northern Italy is suffering from spiking temperatures and its worst drought in more than 70 years. Broad stretches of the Po, Italy’s longest river, have turned to sandy beaches. Its famed lakes, including Maggiore and Como, are also receding. Many canals that branch out of freshwater sources and feed agricultural fields like Saronni’s are now stagnant and drying up.

The region has not seen sustained rainfall since last November. The cause of this drought is no mystery: The winter season produced little snow to feed the rivers; then an early summer heat wave hit with temperatures, normally below 26 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit), frequently approaching 37°C (100°F).

“These extreme phenomena have been taking place with increasing frequency,” says Barbara di Rollo, senior policy advisor on soil and water resources for the Confederation of Italian Farmers. “It’s something we saw coming and, unfortunately for us, we are now having to live through.”

The unfavourable weather has already taken a serious toll on the rice industry. Estimates say farmers are expecting to lose around 30 percent of their yields this year, and the industry has already haemorrhaged around £2.5 billion as a result of the drought. Many of the most stricken fields are in the regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, which together produce around 90 percent of Italy’s rice.

Italy is the biggest producer of rice in the European Union—accounting for over half of its total production—and importers of Italian rice will surely feel the pinch.

Rice paddies are regularly flooded, primarily to keep weeds at bay and temperatures stable between hot days and cooler nights. But it’s not the only crop affected; the drought and heat also are expected to hurt up to half of Italy’s agricultural industry, with up to a 50 percent drop in the production of corn, and significant decreases in summer fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.

A scramble to survive

As the days stretch on with little to no rain and fields bake under the summer sun, officials have taken measures to mitigate the crop damage. On July 4 Italy declared a state of emergency until the end of the year in five of the most affected regions and announced nearly £33 million to help struggling farmers. Many still haven’t received any financial support from the government, but efforts to quantify the damage and determine the magnitude of the losses are ongoing, says Stefano Greppi, a rice farmer and regional president of Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agricultural union.

Regional distributors are coordinating the transport of water to those farmers hit hardest, prioritising rice over other crops like fruit trees. Rice can tolerate a lot of water, but it’s not necessary for the crop to survive. To that end, farmers are able to use less water and many are planting rice without flooding fields, and redistributing water to farmers most in need, says Greppi.

But for many it’s too little too late. Once the fields turn yellow or brown, there’s almost no way to get them to produce rice grains that season. Some farmers, including Gianni Spaltini, who cultivates a rice variety used for sushi, says he expects to lose more than 70 percent of his harvest this year.

“In my 30 years working with rice, I have never seen anything like this—not even my parents or grandparents,” says Spaltini, a third-generation farmer.

To try to stay afloat, Spaltini will sell some of his surviving corn crops to be used as biofuel. But even this strategy is unlikely to keep his business going without help, given the large investments he’s already made in this year’s rice crop, including buying seeds, fuel, fertiliser, and more. The war in Ukraine has sent some of these costs soaring, notably fuel prices for his trucks.

Saronni and others will end up selling whatever rice they are able to produce to millers at a higher price due to the shortage. But that cost will inevitably be passed onto consumers and the poorest will likely be most affected. “Those who will be most punished by this are the most vulnerable in society,” says Ettore Prandini, president of Coldiretti.

Normally, farmers with insurance would be able to cover some of the costs of damaging climate events such as this one. But over the past years the vast majority of insurance companies decided not to cover droughts, says Greppi. He suspects this is because doing so in northern Italy has become far too risky and unprofitable for them.

“This situation has led to a serious problem of economic sustainability of the cost of these risks for the insurance sector,” the National Association for Insurance Companies, in Italy, said in a statement to National Geographic. Insurance companies will work closely with Italy’s department of agriculture, food, and forestry, which is providing £541 million in funds until 2027 to help manage risk and support local farmers, the association added.

Multiple culprits

Lack of snow, followed by scorching temperatures due to climate change, are the most obvious culprits for this drought, but not the only ones: Italy’s water grid system is old and highly inefficient. Pipes are leaky and badly maintained, and the water that is used in agriculture is often not recycled, says Rossella Muroni, vice president of Italy’s environmental commission. As a result, about 40 percent of water transported from one place to another in Italy is lost in transit and only about 10 percent of rainwater is collected, says Prandini.

“It has holes, ruptures—it’s a water grid system that is in a bad state,” says Prandini. “It is imperative … that we invest in medium-term infrastructure projects.”

Recently, Italy unlocked about £3.5 billion as part of an initiative to improve its water system, including the construction of emergency reservoirs across the northern region, says Prandini. Both of those projects would go a long way toward tackling the root of Italy’s problems, he acknowledges, but they will also take several years to complete.

“We cannot leave them behind... These are people who are producing our food.”

Rossella Muroni

Another possible approach is to allocate precise quantities of water to rice crops, enabling some level of flooding but preventing waste. However, over-reliance on these kinds of methods can backfire if not done carefully, says Guillaume Gruere, senior policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In hydraulic systems, water moves from one site to the next and some of this—known as return flow—rushes back to the source, for example a reservoir. But in a highly efficient system, all of the water may end up being used by the crops, leading to bigger harvests, but leaving no water reserves.

“It’s a paradox,” he says. “If you go very fast with all those technologies without having any control, you might see that … the water goes down every year and suddenly you're dry.”

Varying the kinds of crops farmers produce in northern Italy is another possible way forward, he says. Rice is widely consumed and has been cultivated in northern Italy for centuries, so shifting practices is no easy task. But farmers also need to face the harsh reality that rice cultivation in the current climate is quickly becoming untenable. Transitioning to other grains that use similar equipment and techniques, like wheat, could be a way to shift while also dampening these risks, says Gruere.

Making a switch is complex and should be guided by a task force linking expert researchers from universities and government to farmers on the ground, says Muroni. “We cannot leave them behind,” she says. “These are people who are producing our food.”

Some rice farmers, like Saronni, are already planning to change crops to wheat, which can grow over the winter in the region’s temperate climate and don’t require flooding. With Ukraine no longer producing as much wheat due to the war with Russia, he sees this as a new market opportunity that has arisen out of horrible circumstances. But switching crops isn’t so straightforward, since EU regulations tether funding to five years’ production of a crop, and in many cases, in this region, it’s rice.

But for all of the region’s farmers, changing what they grow does not tackle the root of the problem, nor solve this year’s disastrous harvests: a raging climate crisis that is devastating Italy’s agricultural system. Producing wheat, soya, or other grains may help temporarily, but higher temperatures will soon catch up, says Spaldini, leaving him at a loss. “I don’t know what one can do with this climate crisis situation.”

What’s clear is that waiting is not an option, says di Rollo. Instead of responding to the next crisis as it comes, people need to come together and prevent them from happening in the first place. This, she says, will entail long-term investments to bolster Italy’s fragile hydraulic infrastructure.

“This is not a seasonal problem, it can’t be resolved simply with an emergency declaration,” says di Rollo. “We need to tackle these issues before they happen.”

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