Why you should care
A new breed of Scandinavian crops – from maize to grapes – is thriving thanks to global warming.
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Fredrik Andersson’s family has run a farm in Arboga, Sweden, for three generations. It’s only in recent years that the seven-decade-old farm, now 450 hectares, has had to face up to climate change–induced extreme weather, he says. But for the farm — about 100 miles west of Stockholm — that produces wheat, rapeseed, oats and malt barley, in addition to perennial grasses such as timothy, the change isn’t all bad.
Now, says Andersson, both dry and wet seasons last longer than they did a couple of years ago. Crucially, he says, “we have a longer growing season,” which has produced increasing yields of winter wheat.
Globally, climate change is predicted to lead to vanishing glaciers, swelling seas, searing drought and devastating storms. But some regions are expected to benefit from the warming trend. Specifically, according to the ClimateChangePost (CCP) — which collates data from 37 peer-reviewed journals — Northern Europe could by 2080 see its arable land increase 40 percent compared to 1990 levels.
For sure, climatic conditions aren’t uniform across the geographical expanse that is Scandinavia. But across Denmark, Norway and Sweden, farmers and experts are increasingly concluding that climate change — while bringing with it more unpredictable weather than before — is augmenting the performance of certain crops.
Andersson’s experience in Sweden is consistent with climate models for southern Norway, at a similar latitude, where wheat yields could grow by as much as 14 percent, according to the CCP. Likewise, the longer growing season could allow other “heat-demanding species” and crop varieties to grow, including legumes, some vegetables and grains. Even northern Norway’s growing season is expected to expand by up to four weeks by 2050.
There has also been an expansion of wine growing in Denmark.
Jørgen Eivind Olesen, agroecologist
Southern Denmark is benefiting from the “northward expansion of the cultivation of maize,” says Jørgen Eivind Olesen, a professor in Aarhus University’s agroecology department, citing this as the most prominent example of the “current adaptions to climate change.” And Denmark is producing a product the warmer Mediterranean is better known for: wine.
“There has also been an expansion of wine growing in Denmark,” says Olesen.
Make no mistake, climate change is bringing uncertainty to Scandinavian agriculture too. Cord Culemann helps run the Alm Østre community farm in Stange, Norway, about 75 miles north of Oslo. Despite the longer growing season, he says the cooler temperatures and increased rain prevents grain from ripening properly. Are there crops that do enjoy these new conditions? The grasses, perhaps, says Culemann. This meshes with CCP’s prediction that perennial grass yields in Northern Europe will increase by up to 14 percent (in irrigated conditions of mostly western locations, or 11 percent in non-irrigated conditions) by 2065.
In Denmark, climate change is cutting both ways when it comes to the vineyards. It has helped the country emerge a wine-producing nation. Yet at Dansk Vincenter, one of the country’s first vineyards started in 1999, changing weather patterns are now also creating problems. Jens Michael Gundersen and Torben Andreasen, the founders, began by planting 200 different grape varieties to determine which were best suited to the local climate. At the end of 2003, they finally launched commercial operations, and went on to sell thousands of bottles before Miriam Arcerito took over daily operations in November 2015.
“It’s not that white and black,” says Arcerito over the telephone, with a cacophony of dogs barking in the background. Summers, she says, are cooler now, and that’s “kinda bad.” Her grape varieties favor sunny, 28-degree-Celsius days, but temperatures in the region hovered around 19 degrees on average throughout July 2017. Not only is there less sun, but Arcerito laments that “global warming is [also] bringing a lot more water.” That would be great for drought-ridden Cape Town, but not — for the moment at least — for farmers in Scandinavia.
Still, the impact of climate change on farming in Scandinavia presents a far more nuanced picture than a simple doomsday scenario. Though the increase in maize production in southern Denmark isn’t massive yet, the trend is definite, says Olesen from Aarhus University. And while farmers need dry periods to harvest cereals in autumn, Norsk Institutt for Bioøkonomi researcher Arne Bardalen says in the long run the additional precipitation — managed properly — can be useful.
Bardalen predicts that while water scarcity will be a huge problem for food producers in other parts of the world, Norwegian farmers will see higher temperatures and a longer growing season, and they’ll have access to plenty of water (up to 30 percent more this century, he says). The key? Farmers will have to adapt. Better drainage will reduce erosion of agricultural land, he says, and farmers should develop new varieties of grain that are better suited to the longer growing season.
Andersson is already upgrading the drainage system for his farm in Sweden, and planting more winter crops like wheat and rapeseed. “It’s more uncertain,” he concedes. “There’s greater variation in yields — both better and worse.” But in Scandinavia, farmers are taking the first steps to beat the vagaries of climate change. How they fare could hold lessons for their counterparts elsewhere too.