The Italian Agriculture and Climatic Changes

Identification of agricultural areas and crops at high risk due to climatic variations.

Pierpaolo Duce
Research Institute for Agrosystem Monitoring (IMAes)-National Research Council, Sassari)

The main objectives of the research programme may be classified in two types:
  • Methodological: (i) to identify and/or develop the indices (bio-physical, socio-economical, etc.) of climatic risk and (ii) to develop the methodology of analysis to evaluate the susceptibility to climatic variations of the agricultural area and of the crops;
  • Operational: (i) to provide maps of climatic risks for agricultural production and (ii) to make quantitative and qualitative instruments available for decision-making in agricultural planning of the territory.

The main effects that climatic variations can have on agriculture emerge from impact analysis carried out by various Research Centres and the National and International Organizations, since the end of the 1970s. All of these studies have underlined the difficulty that we come across in carrying out analysis that considers the impact in a combined way from (i) an increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere; (ii) the consequent variations in temperature and rainfall; and (iii) the increase in the average sea level. Furthermore, while the scientific world agrees on the fact that the main tendency in climatic variation will be the increase in temperature, there is great uncertainty over the future trends of rainfall, which is the key natural factor for the success of agricultural activity at middle-low latitudes. Consequently, up until now, studies conducted are primarily interested in the impact on the main crops of the large agricultural areas in the middle-high latitudes, while there is little information and forecasting regarding the agricultural levels at lower latitudes.

The research projects that have had input from Italian researchers, are concerned either with the study of direct effects on the increase of CO2 on natural vegetation and on foddering ecosystems, or the analysis of the reaction, in terms of productivity (quality and quantity), of some crop species to climatic variations. Italian researchersí efforts in analysing the impact of climatic variations on agriculture, however, has been insufficient in regard to the studies addressing the definition of the impact from various effects that global change could have on agriculture and on the most important herbaceous and arboreal crops.

In order to make a scientific and operational contribution on this topic and to provides information to institutions in charge of defining the direction of agriculture, this research is characterized by a fundamental objective: to develop the methodology of analyses for evaluating the susceptibility to climatic changes of regions and crops in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Such a methodology can allow for distinguishing both the most vulnerable Italian agricultural areas in the case of climatic change and the possible variations of the extension of the main herbaceous and arboreal crops and of the crops at higher risk for the forecasted climatic scenarios.


The identification of the agricultural areas and crops at high risk due to climatic variations will be carried out through an evaluation of the impact of possible future climatic scenarios. Two methodologies have been distinguished: (i) spatial analysis, which investigates the consequences of climatic variations (increase in temperature, reduction of rainfall, etc.) in terms of identifying agricultural areas and examining the effects in the areas and in the places where agriculture is currently practised; and (ii) an analysis of the crop productivity, which was the first method developed for defining susceptibility of various species to climatic variations and which represents the most widespread evaluation method.

The spatial analysis will be carried out through determining the marginality or the risks of agricultural activity submitted to various scenarios of climatic variations. The first step will consist in identifying a condition or group of conditions that strongly limit agricultural production or make it marginal. These conditions may refer to the biophysical aspects (duration of periods without freezing, duration of arid seasons, degrees-days, potential evapotranspiration, etc.) or socio-economic aspects. For each of the conditions selected, indices will be defined that permit quantification at the level of marginality and/or of risk of the area intended for agricultural activity (for example, bioclimatic indices, risk of freezing indices, synthetic index of land capability, etc). The sensitivity of the agricultural areas and the risk of abandoning such areas following climatic variations could ultimately be evaluated by repeating the analysis in different climatic scenarios.

The analysis of crop productivity will be carried out through the applications of statistics procedures and/or techniques of simulation. As is known, simulation models have been developed by integrating a group of mathematical equations based on empirical or analytical knowledge of specific physiological processes (photosynthesis, respiration, transpiration, etc.) and on their interactions with the environment (climate and soil). In respect of statistical methods, the simulation models are largely made to be used also for environmental conditions that are different than current ones. This type of evaluation on the impact of climatic variations on agriculture allows both the technological responses and the physiological adaptation to climatic changes to be considered.

During the first year, the research programme has the following objectives:
  • To collect necessary data and information for characterizing agricultural areas;
  • To identify a group of conditions that characterize the agricultural areas;
  • To conduct spatial-temporal calculations and analysis of the indices of the climatic risks associated with agricultural activity;
  • To identify a critical value of the risk indices for each of the selected conditions;
  • To design maps of climatic risk

It is agreed that the main tendency of climatic variations at the global level on much of the scientific world is the increase of temperature. However, there are uncertainties concerning the future trend of rainfall, the natural factor that mainly conditions agricultural activity at our latitudes. This uncertainly has led us to concentrate a notable part of the studies turned toward the last decades on the impact of probable climatic variations on main crops of large agricultural areas of medium-high latitude, where the limiting factor is evidently represented on temperature. However, there are few forecasts and little information regarding agricultural areas of a lower latitude, those areas where the critical aspect represented will not be so much the increase of temperature as the variations of the extent of the annual rainfall and its distribution.

A collection of studies undertaken by Italian researchers engaged in the subject of the impact of Global Change on agriculture shows how most research has confronted the study of the direct effects of the increase in CO2 on natural vegetation and on foraging ecosystems while there is a lack of studies on defining the combined impact from various effects that Global Change could have on Italian agriculture and on the most important herbaceous and arboreal crops.

From this point of view, the objectives and the contents of this research represent from this point of view an attempt to fill in a gap, at least partially, and develop, therefore, a group of analytical methodologies for the evaluation of the susceptibility of climatic variations of areas and crops in regions with a Mediterranean climate.

The development of a group of analytical methodologies for evaluating the susceptibility of climatic changes and of crops in the regions with a Mediterranean climate will allow for supplying thematic maps of the climatic risks of agricultural production for the areas under study. In particular, there will thus be instruments available for quantitative and qualitative analyses for decisions concerning agricultural planning and land management at various spatial and temporal scales.

A particularly pertinent aspect will be analysing the effects of the climatic changes on the frequency of extreme climatic events. In fact, small climatic variations could also carry a notable increase in the risk of extreme meteorological events, a possibility to which agriculture is particularly sensitive. Generally, it is not hazardous to say that the impact on agriculture of climatic variations could largely derive from the effects of extreme meteorological events. For this purpose, it is enough to consider the costs that are significantly higher than should have resulted following an increase in the frequency of extremely hot days that can determine the thermic stress on the crops.

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