All posts by Lisa Palmer

Vineyards take action as climate change threatens wines and livelihoods

October 3, 2013 — by Lisa Palmer

The French know a thing or two about wine. But in the not too distant future, some French wines might not come from their namesake regions.

That’s because climate change is altering growing conditions in wine-producing regions, and grape production long associated with regions further south is beginning to shift to new areas.

“Climate change will produce winners and losers among wine-growing regions, and for every region it will result in changes to the alcohol, acid, sugar, tannins and colour in wine,” says climate scientist and wine expert Antonio Busalacchi of the University of Maryland.

Vineyards are now taking action. The wine sector of France is buying up land in places like southern England as it confronts the need simultaneously to reduce risks of yield losses and continue to produce the world’s leading wines.

“Given that most grapevines produce fruit for 25 to 50 years, grape-growers and wine-makers must consider the long term when determining what to plant, where to plant, and how to manage their vineyards,” says Busalacchi, who directs Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center.

While the effects of climate change are being felt, Busalacchi says it is misleading to take a snapshot of any one year or season. “One needs to take a long-term time horizon view of this,” he adds.

Over the past four years, England has experienced a boom in the number of hectares that are producing the main grapes that are grown in the Champagne region of France – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These three varieties now account for more than 50% of England’s total varietal plantings.

“Several Champagne houses already are looking at land in Sussex and Kent in southern England as potential sites for new vineyards because as climate warms the region is becoming more hospitable to quality grape growing,” says Busalacchi. The soil in the white cliffs of Dover is similar to the chalky substrate of Champagne, and the cost of land is 30 times less than in France.

“Climate is undoubtedly playing a part as, coupled with the international competition successes, it has led to the general growth in confidence in what we are capable of producing over here,” says Julia Trustram Eve, spokeswoman for the English Wine Producers. Acreage under vine has nearly doubled in England in the past nine years, and much of that is for the production of sparkling wine.

Warming temperatures have been noticed, she adds. “Those that planted vineyards some 25 to 30 years ago have seen a change, such as picking dates by and large starting earlier, for example,” says Eve.

The grape vine is particularly sensitive to climate variability and change, like many agricultural crops. But wine producers place much more importance on quality since temperature and precipitation affects alcohol, acidity and colour. Bordeaux and other regions in France will have a compressed growing season, and extreme events such as heat waves, which shut down photosynthesis, and hail storms, which can ruin production in a matter of minutes, will be more common, says Busalacchi. South Africa and southern Australia will see declines in wine production due to severe droughts. While South African wine producers can’t move poleward, Australian growers are looking to favourable growing conditions expected in Tasmania in the coming decades.

Some vineyards will be less affected by climate change. For instance, vineyards at higher altitudes and near the ocean will benefit from more consistent growing seasons and growing days. These include Oregon and Washington State in the US, the Mendoza Province of Argentina, and the Rhine in Germany.

So what are the options for the future? Where possible vineyards can change their orientation to a more northern-facing direction. As well, canopy management can further shade the bunches and trellis modifications can cool the canopy. Some growers can use screening to shade the vines, as some areas do, to protect grapes from birds, but this is expensive. Grapes that are genetically modified can withstand temperature and drought stress expected as the climate warms. Local appellation laws can also be changed to permit irrigation as well as warmer climate varietals, says Busalacchi.

In much of Europe, grape-growing is on small farms. The wine-growers are farmers who are at the mercy of climate and market forces. “They will always be likely to be able to grow grapes,” says Busalacchi. “The question is of what quality and what varietal.” In southwest France, overproduction is a bigger issue. Busalacchi says that in regions like Minervois and Corbières, the government is encouraging quality over quantity, “grubbing up” vines by pulling them up by the roots and replacing them with other agricultural crops, and limiting new acreage.

Are most wine producers consulting climate services for their planning? Not exactly. Despite 30 years of research on climate science, businesses are just now beginning to apply climate research to their investment decisions.

By engaging climate research to inform long-term planning, industries and communities are starting to put a value on climate services to reduce business risk.

This story originally appeared in The Guardian

What can Madagascar teach us about rice and water?

July 30, 2013 — by Lisa Palmer

The idea that a simple grain like rice could change the world may seem far-fetched. But as a growing population and climate change put pressure on a hot, hungry planet, rice is playing an increasingly important role.

Rice is a major source of calories for half of the world’s population, and how rice is grown affects yields and affects the environment. Irrigated rice is normally covered with water. Flooding rice paddies suppresses weed growth, but it also uses enormous quantities of water and increases methane emissions when plant matter decomposes in flooded fields.

Twenty-five years ago small holder farms in Madagascar began growing rice using a methodology that doesn’t flood rice paddies continuously. With aerated soil, rather than flooded fields, farmers plant single, young seedlings directly into rows along with nutrients. The rice produces deeper roots and since the field isn’t flooded, the roots of the plants don’t suffocate. The result is stronger root and larger plants that produce heavier grain. And, in addition to using less water, the method requires less land preparation and fertiliser, although more weeding is required.

Growers produce more grain per hectare, conserve water resources, and create fewer environmental impacts. The system has spread from farmer to farmer, and 2.5 million of them in 50 countries have adopted these methods.

Now, a California-based company, Lotus Foods, is promoting this agriculture method, called the system of rice intensification (SRI) by providing farmers access to a global marketplace. Branded under the More Crop Per Drop label, the company sells six varieties of SRI-grown rice, including Madagascar Pink Rice. “Flooding rice paddies uses a third of our planet’s freshwater resources,” says Caryl Levine, co-owner of Lotus Foods, adding that the agriculture business doesn’t like this method because “there is nothing to buy and it is so farmer friendly.”

According to Olivia Vent, SRI liaison at Lotus Foods, the rice is better for the planet because it uses 50% less water and 90% less seed, yet results in up to three times conventional yields. The SRI method improves root growth and enriches soil, she says.

Lotus foods began by importing 20 tonnes of SRI-grown rice from Cambodia in 2008. Now the company imports 200 tonnes in the Cambodian supply chain and nearly the same amount of SRI-rice from Indonesia. Imports from Madagascar are fragile, Vent says, due to political instability and imports of pink rice are substantially lower.

So, is that the end of flooded paddy fields?

Lewis Ziska doesn’t think so. Ziska is a plant physiologist at the US department of agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service in Maryland. He says that scientists have not been able to replicate the yields claimed by those who developed the SRI methods. Still, conserving water resources and reducing methane emissions is critical for a changing climate, he says.

According to the International Water Management Institute, one-quarter of the world’s irrigated rice lowlands, which supply three-fourths of the world’s irrigated rice, will experience water scarcity under climate change.

Vent of Lotus Foods says the environment is protected through the SRI-growing methods because the rice fields require no synthetic chemicals, which often makes its way into water systems. “So often, the water flooding the fields is connected to natural habitats. The water wasn’t getting into those places and was hurting plants and animals of the forests.

Vent adds that in Vietnam, fish life has come back in areas surround rice fields, and fishing has since become an important cash crop and nutrition source.

This story originally appeared in The Guardian