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Mediterranean wineries are in a climate hotspot. Climatologists are helping them adapt

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BY ALEX WHITING

From the possible demise of Merlot grapes in Bordeaux to loss of olive trees in north Africa, the impacts of climate change will be felt by farmers across the Mediterranean region, say climatologists.

To help the region’s agricultural producers cope with shifting weather patterns, and make strategic decisions now for the future, scientists are researching new growing techniques, and creating climate forecasts.

The Mediterranean Basin – comprising countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea – is a climate hotspot. It is experiencing faster than average rises in temperature and may suffer major losses of rainfall in future decades.

Wine makers are among those already feeling the effects.

‘Climate change is not only a thing of the future it is happening now. We see an increase of mean temperatures, and this already has an impact on grape growing,’ said Josep Maria Solé Tasias, coordinator of VISCA, a project developing forecasts and pruning techniques to help vineyards adapt to climate change.

One impact is that higher temperatures make grapes ripen too early, before their aromas have had a chance to fully develop. ‘That is something the wineries are very worried about,’ said Solé Tasias who is a civil engineer at Meteosim SL, a Spanish company offering meteorological services.

In southwestern France, the Bordeaux region’s famous Merlot and Sauvignon blanc grapes are expected to be victims of climate change, so wine makers there are testing more resilient grape varieties from southern and eastern Europe.

Another solution is to find plots of land in more northern or elevated cooler locations to plant for the future.

But small wineries will find it difficult to make such large investments, says Solé Tasias. So VISCA has been testing some innovative farming techniques to see if they can minimise the damage.

These include ‘crop forcing’, which involves pruning vines so the grapes mature later in the growing season once temperatures have dropped. But deciding when to prune is difficult – too early or too late in the growing season would impact the harvest.

Forecasts

VISCA has developed seasonal forecasts which are helping farmers assess the best times to apply these techniques. They use detailed data about the vineyard – including location, soil type, and grape variety – to estimate when vines will produce buds or grapes will ripen, as well as predicting temperatures and rainfall.

But unlike short-term weather forecasts which can accurately predict whether there will be a frost or warm sunshine, seasonal forecasts of up to six months ahead are much less certain. Knowing how to use them for decision-making is complex, says Solé Tasias.

‘Farmers at the moment don’t know exactly how to use them – they are used to making decisions in the short-term,’ said Solé Tasias.

A seasonal forecast could for example say there is 60% probability there will be a particularly warm summer. If a farmer delays the ripening of their grapes based on this assumption, they may lose money if the summer turns out to be normal.

‘Farmers have to understand that their decision can result in losses,’ said Solé Tasias.

To help with this, VISCA has worked with some wineries to create a list of actions based on each short-term and seasonal forecast – for example, buy more chemicals to deal with a possible spike in pest numbers, or prune the vines to delay the grape harvest – and spell out the financial risks associated with each option.

The options and risks will be tailored to each vineyard or winery. And the more information the researchers have about the vineyard, the better they can forecast, they say.

Unpredictability

Long-term climate forecasting is particularly difficult in the Mediterranean region, says Dr Alessandro Dell’Aquila, co-coordinator of the MED-GOLD project, which is developing climate services for pasta, olive oil and wine producers.

‘It has an intrinsic unpredictability because there is a lot of noise due to large-scale (atmospheric) movements and perturbations,’ said Dr Dell’Aquila, who is a climatologist at the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA).

The tropics, by contrast, are more stable, which means that seasonal forecasts for coffee, tea, maize and other crops in parts of Africa and South America could be more accurate.

But seasonal forecasts will still be vital for Mediterranean farmers despite their uncertainty, says Dr Dell’Aquila.

The longer-term impacts of climate change on the Mediterranean are likely to be severe.

‘The Mediterranean could look very different in future decades. We may have completely different species of animals or insects that could arrive from the tropics, and we could experience loss of local biodiversity,’ said Dr Dell’Aquila.

We could also have less water available, including for agricultural purposes, he says. ‘And the region may experience a higher number of (severe) heatwaves.’

Some crops will need to be grown on higher ground or further north where the climate will be cooler and wetter. More field irrigation will be needed and, in the case of grapes, different varieties will have to be grown.

Parts of Europe may open up for wine and olive oil production for the first time, while other areas may see a collapse.

‘There are some ideas of moving olive trees northward to new growing regions. And parts of the Mediterranean – for example, north Africa – could become too hot for olive groves.’

Similarly, while wine production has recently expanded in the UK and Denmark, certain southern Italian wines may become extremely rare within the next decade, Dr Dell’Aquila says.

Support

EU policy needs to change to support producers adapting to climate change, he says. Rules that regulate the composition of wines, for example, could be changed to allow producers to use different varieties of grape – even grapes from different regions – without changing the name of the wine. ‘This could be very important for consumers because they want to go to the supermarket and find a (Chianti), and the name of this wine is clearly defined in some EU rules.’

In the meantime, producers need to act now. ‘Wine-makers should start thinking now where they can buy new plots of land and start planting grapes as an investment for the next 10 or 20 years,’ said Dr Dell’Aquila.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

The issue

As the climate changes, we need to prepare for its impacts and take action to minimise the damage to our environment, society and economy. This is known as climate adaptation.

On 24 February 2021, the EU published its climate adaptation strategy which sets out how to make Europe more climate resilient and protect people from the impacts of climate change, such as heatwaves and flooding. Follow the link for more information on the EU strategy on adaptation to climate change

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GHG emissions from pyrolysis are nine times higher than in mechanical recycling

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New study published today by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) finds that greenhouse gas emissions from pyrolysis of plastic packaging are nine times higher than that of mechanical recycling. The “Climate impact of pyrolysis of waste plastic packaging in comparison with reuse and mechanical recycling” study is based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging.

BACKGROUND: In the context of the revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD), the European Commission (EC) assigned the independent consultancy Eunomia to consider the possible introduction of recycled content targets for plastic packaging by 2030. Based on the estimated future recycling content targets in plastic packaging, Eunomia determined to recycle quantities that must come as outputs from chemical recycling or mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, in this case, means thermo-chemical (i.e. pyrolysis) recycling.

With this study, commissioned by ZWE and Rethink Plastic alliance to Öko-Institut, we calculated the impact of Eunomia’s proposed scenario regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon loss. The study compares seven scenarios to meet the projected recycled content target by 2030, and puts them into perspective with the Paris Agreement commitments to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The study found that: 

  • Pyrolysis GHG emissions are nine times higher than those in mechanical recycling – in all scenarios considered over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to chemical recycling;
  • Over half of the carbon content of plastic is lost in the pyrolysis process and has to be replaced by new plastic;
  • Mechanical recycling must be prioritised over pyrolysis wherever possible –  shifting 30% of the production attributed to chemical recycling by Eunomia to mechanical recycling would reduce GHG emissions by 31%;
  • Combining shit to more mechanical recycling together with a reduction of 20% of packaging would result in a 45% reduction of GHG emissions compared to the “chemical recycling scenario”.
  • Combining mechanical and chemical recycling to transform plastic waste into recyclate avoids the GHG emissions associated with the use of primary plastic.


ZWE’s Chemical Recycling and Plastic-to-Fuel Policy Officer, Lauriane Veillard says: “The revision of the PPWD should serve as a lever to make the packaging sector more circular and be in line with European climate commitments to limit Global Warming to 1.5 Degrees Celsius. There are other ways than pyrolysis for contact-sensitive materials. The climate impact of the managing pathways should be considered when setting targets. The revision is the opportunity to rethink the overall volume and the use we make of plastic packaging.“

With this in mind, ZWE urges the European Commission (EC) to consider the reports’ findings in the upcoming revision of the PPWD and to:

  • Introduce legal safeguards to prioritise mechanical recycling over pyrolysis;
  • Consider the climate impact of different recycling technologies when settings targets for recycled content;
  • Incentivise measures such as design for recycling and innovations along the plastic packaging value chain to facilitate mechanical recycling.

Lauriane Veillard adds: “If we are serious about achieving net-zero emission economy, mechanical recycling must be preferred over pyrolysis. However, this cannot be achieved unless legal safeguards as part of the P&PWD revision are introduced to prioritise mechanical processes for recycling packaging waste complemented with ambitious prevention and reuse targets”. 

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UN spotlights transformational potential of family farming for world food supply

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María Fernanda Masís and her family are the owners of the hot sauces brand Xoloitzcuintle, named after their farm. Photo: UNEP

A Global Forum highlighting the UN’s Decade of Family Farming (UNDFF) got underway on Monday, aimed at identifying priority policies to boost support for family farmers and agricultural development worldwide.

The UNDFF runs through the end of 2028, and the Forum is being convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, pointed out in his video address to the Global Forum’s opening that the world is moving backwards in its efforts to eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

Growing hunger

He said the number of people facing hunger increased in 2021, and it risks rising further especially among the most vulnerable, of which almost 80 percent live in rural areas and are small-scale, family farmers.

Family farmers around the world are also subject to the new challenges to food systems everywhere, created by the climate crisis, as well as conflict. The war in Ukraine has added further pressure, to already fragile agrifood systems, UN agencies said.

Mr. QU said the forum provides a way, firstly, to discuss “the unique role of family farmers in transforming our agrifood systems; two, take stock of achievements and challenges in the implementation of the UN Decade; and three, strengthen collaboration to ensure global food security, enhance livelihoods and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

80 percent

Family farmers need to be at the centre of efforts to transform agrifood systems if we are to make real progress towards ending hunger,” Mr. Qu said.

He added that “family farming is the main form of agriculture in both developed and developing countries and is responsible for producing 80 percent of the world’s food,” in terms of value.

Family struggle

He noted that often, these family farmers struggle to feed their own families.

Since its launch three years ago, the UN Decade of Family Farming has been promoting integrated policies and investments to support family farmers, and FAO has been assisting national implementation of international tools and guidelines to strengthen family farming, Mr. Qu told the virtual forum.

He also noted that FAO hosts the Family Farming Knowledge Platform to facilitate the exchange of experience, innovation and specialised knowledge.

In addition, the FAO Strategic Framework 2022-31 includes a priority area of work aimed at better supporting small-scale food producers and delivering concrete results.

Push for the future

The main objectives of the Global Forum are to provide a general overview of policy trends and the relevance of family farming to the global push towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals; highlight the main outcomes of the first three years of implementation; and re-orient the UNDFF agenda through the practical lessons learned so far.

Participants include representatives from national governments, governmental agencies, UN agencies, family farmers and their organizations, civil society organizations, as well as NGOs; the private sector, the media and academia.

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Microalgae promise abundant healthy food and feed in any environment

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By Sofia Strodt

Feeding a growing world population that will reach 9.8 billion by 2050, according to United Nations forecasts, and the need to conserve natural resources for generations to come may seem conflicting at first.

But a solution, while not yet in sight, is certainly not out of reach. European scientists recently have developed an appetite for microalgae, also called phytoplankton, a sub-group of algae consisting of unicellular photosynthetic microorganisms.

Most people are familiar with the largest form of algae, kelp or seaweed. It can grow up to three metres long and, in some forms, is a well-known delicacy. The related species microalgae, which can be found in both seawater and freshwater, have gained attention in research due to their extraordinary properties.

These microscopic organisms can be used for animal feed, particularly in aquaculture, and various foods including pasta, vegan sausages, energy bars, bakery products and vegetable creams. 

Most commercial microalgae cultivation centres on the production of dried biomass such as chlorella or spirulina powder as a food providing considerable health benefits. Some microalgae strains not only accumulate up to 65–70% of protein but also are sustainable sources of omega-3 fatty acids – a substance that is conventionally derived mainly from fish and fish oil.

Additional bioactive compounds, such as vitamins B12, K or D, mean microalgae contain significant health properties, potentially reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular illness.

Desert algae

‘Microalgae can be cultivated in many different locations, under very different conditions,’ said Massimo Castellari, who is involved in the Horizon-funded ProFuture project aimed at scaling up microalgae production. ‘We can grow it in Iceland and in a desert climate.’  

The technologies for the intensive cultivation of microalgae have been in development since the 1950s.

Today, microalgae are cultivated in open- or closed-system photobioreactors, which are vessels designed to control biomass production. The closed-system version, while more expensive to build, offers more control over experimental parameters and less risk of contamination. 

The substance is by no means just a trendy food supplement. For example, in Chad, a landlocked, low-income country, the consumption of spirulina harvested from Lake Chad has significantly improved people’s nutritional status because spirulina is an excellent source of proteins and micronutrients.

On top of its nutritional value, microalgae offer climate benefits by sequestering carbon dioxide as well as economic advantages by using farming areas more efficiently and – through the use of non-arable land – expanding the possibility of biomass production. 

With a total of less than 57 000 tonnes cultivated in 2019, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), production of microalgae is still very much in its early stages. By comparison, primary-crop output was 9.4 billion tonnes in 2019. 

Food inflation

Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine has highlighted just how vulnerable global food supply can be. Halts to Ukrainian grain exports and increases in energy prices have helped push food inflation around the world to record highs, with developing countries being hit disproportionately hard. In May this year, costs for food had risen by 42% compared with 2014-2016, the UN reported.  

Last year, as many as 828 million people were affected by hunger – an increase of roughly 46 million compared with 2020 and a surge of 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FAO projects that some 670 million people will still face hunger by the end of the decade.   

While the benefits of cultivating organic microalgae for food and feed are substantial, market growth will require overcoming obstacles including a lack of automated production in the industry, according to Castellari, who works at the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology in Barcelona, Spain.

‘The automatisation is still not completely implemented,’ he said. ‘There are small producers in Europe – many steps still involve manual labour. So they are still working on optimising the process.’ 

Processed biomass

The challenges go well beyond cultivation. With microalgae, biomass has to be processed, cleaned and dried before a usable powder can be obtained. The next step is to scale up production to drive down costs. 

In addition, there are regulatory challenges. Only a few species of microalgae are currently authorised in the European Union.

‘In Europe it’s still in a preliminary stage of development,’ said Castellari. ‘There are thousands of species of microalgae, but for food consumption or feed there are only seven species authorised.’ 

To gain knowledge about the possibilities to use other species, Castellari and his team are also investigating these other kinds of microalgae.

Due to these challenges, the portfolio of products containing microalgae remains limited today. But, if these hurdles can be overcome, the overall prospects for the microalgae industry are promising. Besides being a source of food and feed, the plant can be used for biofuels, cosmetics, fertiliser and health supplements.

Astaxanthin, a blood-red pigment extracted from algae, already has notable uses. A powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin can be found in seafood and is commonly used to colour shrimp. It is also sold in the form of pills as a food supplement.

Astaxanthin is thought to have potentially a positive impact on brain function, athletic performance and ageing skin, among other things.

Matteo Ballottari, associate professor of biotechnology at the University of Verona in Italy, helped start the European Research Council’s Horizon-funded project AstaOmega simultaneously to produce astaxanthin and omega-3 fatty acids in microalgae for aquaculture and human nutrition. 

Quality and quantity 

Most omega-3 supplements are derived from fish oils. This, however, raises sustainability concerns such as damage to marine ecosystems as a result of overfishing.  

‘There is more demand for eating high-quality foods, along with an awareness for incorporating omega-3 rich ingredients in our diets,’ Ballottari said. Responding to this trend while feeding a growing world population is ‘a big challenge,’ he said.

Meanwhile, on the astaxanthin front, the AstaOmega researchers have made progress. They have been able to obtain a new strain that can produce astaxanthin on its own, without needing to be “stressed”. This means the researchers don’t have to change production parameters such as light intensity, temperature or nitrates concentration. Also, extracting the substance has become easier, resulting in lower costs.  

Scientists agree that microalgae have the potential to change the ways in which we eat for the better.  

‘Microalgae can help us to increase the protein production within Europe to reduce our dependence on other countries,’ said Castellari of the ProFuture project.  

Research in this article was funded by the EU and it was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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