Profound regional transformation of European wheat and maize production over the last decades

Photo: Wheat fields in midsummer (August) in Ukraine, Oblast Lviv; © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

A new study in Scientific Reports (open access) observed long-term trends in European cereal production from 1961 to 2017. A rapid technological transfer lurched from West to East, as well as the accelerating sensitivity to climatic change pulled the focus of wheat and maize production from South to North in Europe. As a result, the role of Central and Eastern Europe as a breadbasket of the world seems to have strengthened during the past decades due to the heavily increasing grain yields in the region.

The findings above have serious consequences for global food security. Taking into account the area of wheat and maize cultivation declined by an estimated 12 million ha in the European part of the Mediterranean region between 1961 and 2017. The abandonment of cereal fields was a part of a wider landscape transformation in the European part of the Mediterranean since almost 19 million ha of arable land was abandoned over the last 60 years. The extent of the deserted arable lands in this region was equivalent to an estimated half of the Canadian arable lands. The highest degree of sensitivity of wheat and maize yields to increasing summer temperature was found in Eastern and Central Europe. These regions, however, are the centers of the development of crop production in Europe. The major part of the European yield growing potential was also identified as being located in these regions.

In the light of the recent war of Russia against Ukraine, growing importance of Eastern Europe in global food markets implies a serious risk. Ukraine and Russia together accounting for one-third of global grain exports, currently disrupts the global trade of staple foods such as wheat and maize, along with fertilizers, which can seriously escalate global food insecurity. Although the “invasion of Eastern European grain” and the vulnerability of food supply from the Black Sea Basin may appear to be a new phenomenon. In fact, an ancient grain production-consumption system is being restored before our eyes. More than 2,300 years ago, ancient Greeks integrated the Black Sea Basin as a regular grain supplier to the Mediterranean world. The two main elements of this system are a food surplus in the plains surrounding the Black Sea Basin and food demand in the Mediterranean Region. Since then this food production-consumption system as a part of long-term historical structures has worked during peaceful times when life took place in “normal operation”. Wars in the Black Sea Basin, like the Ottoman-Russian wars in the 18th century, Crimean War in the 1850s, the Russian invasion in Ukraine today, or other stochastic phenomena such as the irrational communist regime in the Soviet Union are able to block the system performance.

The horrific Russian aggression generates many uncertainties and negative consequences. An urgent task to fill the currently evolving global grain deficit that poses serious challenges for countries heavily dependent on cereals imports located in northern Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The food index is approaching its all-time high of 2011 (Arab Spring), causing a serious blow to household finances and fewer choices on shelves, especially in emerging countries, holding the potential of possible unrest. Skyrocketing food prices the main fuel of land conversion to croplands i.e. ecosystem destruction further harming the potential for habitat restoration and the implementation of biodiversity and climate change strategies. Nevertheless, the escalating drought vulnerability of the southern part of Central and Eastern Europe urgently triggers tangible solutions to mitigate climate challenge. In this avenue, nature-based solutions, for instance restoration of destroyed habitats, mainly wetlands that have low agroecological suitability unavoidable tasks and tools.

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