Floods, droughts and panic attacks: Climate change is taking its toll on Europe's farmers

Floods, droughts and panic attacks: Climate change is taking its toll on Europe's farmers

European farming has been hit by an increase in flooding, drought, and heatwaves in recent years.

The climate crisis is already causing economic losses for farmers and the agricultural sector and, without intervention, it’s set to get even worse.

There’s no doubt about the science. “In Europe and around the world, the level of risks for the food system, functioning ecosystems and human health are substantially increased by higher levels of warming,” says Dr Peter Alexander, senior lecturer in agriculture and food systems at the University of Edinburgh.

Farmers throughout Europe carry the responsibility of feeding the continent - a heavy burden to bear under the weight of climate change.

Within Europe, Dr Alexander is most worried for southern countries, as they face more pronounced dry and hot seasons, followed by intense flooding.

Portuguese farmers are stressed by dry summers and winters

Maaike Smits is a dairy farmer with a herd of 500 cattle including cows, heifers and steers (castrated males) in the south of Portugal.

This year he saw the hot, dry summer season lasting into October - before slipping into a dry winter. “The extreme warm weather causes stress on our animals,” he says. “We have had to invest as much as possible in ventilation and a sprinkler system for the cows.”

With more money going on maintaining the cows, he is getting less profit in return.

“I am anxious and stressed because we don’t get a price for our milk that covers the costs,” he says. “And it doesn’t permit us to invest in improvements on the farm, animal welfare, or worker welfare.”

He falls asleep at night worrying that with the dry summer and winters, there won’t be enough water for summer crops or for drinking water for the cows. Water shortages are also leading to a lack of corn silage (used to feed his cattle), driving up the costs of food for his animals. Other farmers near him in Ermidas-Sadoare are all saying the same.

There have been promises of financial support for farmers from the Portuguese government, but Smits thinks this will only “mitigate” difficulties for the next few years. He doesn’t think it will offer a long-term solution.

The Italian farmers losing out to floods

In Emilia-Romagna, Italy, Matteo Pagliarani says flooding in May wreaked havoc on his family farm, home to both crops and livestock.

“We lost our grapes, around 20 hectares of land, and the shelter for our animals,” the 29-year-old farmer says. “Some neighbours lost even more.”

Following the flooding was a summer of intense, dry heat. “The last two years, it has been very dry weather,” he says. “The weather is changeable - it isn’t safe or secure.”

The unpredictability of the weather has made it difficult for Pagliarani to know the best time to seed his crops and has led to his supply chains being disrupted.

While the impacts of climate change have driven Pagliarani to learn about and implement water resilience and plant protection on his farm, he worries that those in his rural farming community may choose to move into ‘safer’ areas.

“Farmers are feeling very bad,” he says. “They may go to search and find a more comfortable situation. We are very scared for Italy if people keep leaving rural areas.”

As vice president of the European Young Farmers’ Organisation, Pagliarani thinks more wellbeing and practical support needs to be given to young farmers.

“The young farmers are the future of the land,” he says. “We need to invest, support and believe in them.”

Matteo Pagliarani's farm in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, has faced damage from extreme weather.
Matteo Pagliarani's farm in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, has faced damage from extreme weather. - Matteo Pagliarani

Northern European farmers are witnessing extreme weather too

While England might not experience the long months of extreme heat in the same way as countries in the south of Europe do, farmers are worried about constant, heavy flooding pelting down on their farms.

Rebecca Mayhew owns a farm in Norfolk where she keeps sheep, pigs, and goats, and also grows crops.

During Storm Ciarán, one of many to hit the UK this year, Mayhew recalls “virtually staying up all night” with worry.

“I was waiting for the power to go off,” she says. “If we have no power, we can’t milk, we can’t run the fridges, and we can’t open the business. It’s a nightmare.”

In recent years, Mayhew has observed seasons shift and more extreme hot and wet weather on her farm during a shorter time frame, and it makes her mind and body very anxious.

“I never used to know what a panic attack was,” she said. “It’s a heart racing, breath shortening moment. I’ve had cancer and never felt the same anxiety over that as this. It just knocks you for six.”

Rebecca Mayhew has experienced more extreme hot and wet weather on her farm in Norfolk, UK.
Rebecca Mayhew has experienced more extreme hot and wet weather on her farm in Norfolk, UK. - Rebecca Mayhew

Farm labourers fear for the future of their jobs

The weather changes throughout Europe are not only impacting farmers, but their workers.

This summer, several agricultural labourers died in the fields they were working as a result of the harsh heat of the sun.

Ivan Ivanov, political secretary for agriculture at EFFAT - a large European trade union representing the workers - said that extreme temperatures have led to numerous cases of heat stress and heat stroke.

Taking time off work for heat-related reasons “could have major financial implications on workers and their families in terms of no sickness benefits, cost of treatment, and so on,” says Ivanov.

He adds that he is worried about the cases of skin cancer we’ll see in the future as a result of increased UV radiation.

Despite the risks of the job, farm workers often have to soldier on despite their working conditions.

“If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” Aabass Echmouti, a citrus picker in Valencia, tells Euronews Green. “I continue working because I am afraid about the future of my job. My life, my family, and my health depend on my job.”

Echmouti also noted how recent months of little rain, followed by heavy flooding, damages the fruit, leaving him without work or income.

“Workers do not have the autonomy to shape and organise the working conditions on their own and in a way that protects them from the hazards associated with climate change,” says Ivanov. “It is a duty of employers which is unfortunately often disregarded in agriculture.”

To protect farmers and farm workers, countries have to understand the impact climate change is having on the mental health of farmers.

How are European countries caring for their farmers?

In Finland, the government learned that 40 per cent of its farmers considered their work mentally burdening, with 13 per cent reporting depression.

The state response is to ensure farmers know where they can get help. Occupational health services and the Farmers’ Social Insurance Institution are both advertised options for farmers struggling with structural changes in agriculture, sharp decline of profitability in farming and extreme weather conditions.

In stark contrast, the UK government has said that flood-hit farmers do not need targeted mental health support, even though farmers throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland have said that increased flooding is taking a huge toll on their mental health.

In France, a recent survey revealed the suicide rate for farmers was 20 per cent higher than the national average.

As a profession under pressure, more research is needed to review and address the scale of the mental health needs of farmers in Europe. That’s according to Alun Jones, a representative of the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies.

“Farmers need to be looked after,” Jones told the European Parliament’s agriculture committee last year. “They’re the ones producing our food and they have multiple stress factors, and part of this picture is not just about the hard risks and accidents, it’s about their psychosocial wellbeing.”