Deluges, arid spells and anxiety episodes: Climate change is exacting a toll on Europe’s farmers

The livelihoods and psychological well-being of European farmers are being harmed by climate-driven droughts and floods.
ADVERTISEMENTThere has been a surge in flooding, drought, and heatwaves impacting European farming in recent years. The climate crisis is currently leading to financial losses for farmers and the agricultural sector. Without intervention, the situation is poised to worsen. The scientific consensus is clear. According to Dr. Peter Alexander, a senior lecturer in agriculture and food systems at the University of Edinburgh, higher levels of warming substantially increase risks for the food system, functioning ecosystems, and human health in Europe and around the world. The burden of feeding the continent falls heavily on the shoulders of European farmers under the weight of climate change.
Dr. Alexander is particularly worried about southern countries within Europe, which are facing more pronounced dry and hot seasons followed by intense flooding. Portuguese farmers, such as Maaike Smits, are feeling the pressure of dry summers and winters. Maaike, a dairy farmer in the south of Portugal with a herd of 500 cattle including cows, heifers, and steers, witnessed the hot, dry summer season extending into October and transitioning into a dry winter. This extreme warm weather has caused stress on their animals, leading to increased investment in ventilation and a sprinkler system for the cows. However, the added costs are resulting in reduced profits. The dry seasons also spark concern about water shortages for summer crops and drinking water for the cows. Additionally, water shortages have led to a lack of corn silage, driving up the costs of food for the animals. Other farmers in Ermidas-Sadoare are facing similar challenges to Maaike.

While the Portuguese government has promised financial support for farmers, Smits believes it will only provide short-term aid. He does not consider it to be a long-term solution. In Emilia-Romagna, Italy, Matteo Pagliarani has experienced the devastation caused by flooding in May on his family farm. They lost grapes, approximately 20 hectares of land, and the shelter for their animals. Following the flooding, there was a summer of intense, dry heat. The unpredictable weather has made it difficult for Pagliarani to make decisions regarding seeding his crops and has disrupted his supply chains.

As the vice president of the European Young Farmers’ Organisation, Pagliarani emphasizes the need for better support for young farmers’ well-being and practices.

Farmers in northern Europe are also witnessing extreme weather patterns. In England, farmers like Rebecca Mayhew, who owns a farm in Norfolk, are concerned about frequent, heavy flooding on their farms. The shifts in seasons and extreme weather are causing significant anxiety for Mayhew. She has observed seasons shifting and more extreme weather within a shorter time frame, leading to significant mental and physical anxiety. Farm laborers are also affected by the changing weather patterns throughout Europe. This summer, several agricultural laborers died in the fields due to extreme heat. Ivan Ivanov, political secretary for agriculture at EFFAT, notes that extreme temperatures have led to numerous cases of heat stress and heat stroke for farm workers. Despite the risks of the job, farm workers often have to continue working due to financial implications.

To protect farmers and farm workers, countries must understand the impact of climate change on the mental health of farmers.

In Finland, the state response to farmers experiencing mental burdens is to ensure they know where to seek help. Options such as occupational health services and the Farmers’ Social Insurance Institution are advertised for farmers struggling with structural changes in agriculture, sharp decline of profitability in farming, and extreme weather conditions. In contrast, the UK government has stated that flood-hit farmers do not need targeted mental health support, despite reports from farmers throughout England, Wales, and Northern Ireland indicating that increased flooding is taking a significant toll on their mental health. In France, a recent survey revealed that 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 according to Alun Jones, a representative of the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies. Jones emphasized the importance of looking after farmers’ psychosocial wellbeing, in addition to addressing the hard risks and accidents they face.

Leave a comment