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Agriculture and Horticulture

Agriculture and horticulture in numbers


Agriculture accounts for only a small part of gross domestic production (GDP) in Europe, and it is considered that the overall vulnerability of the European economy to changes that affect agriculture is low (9). However, agriculture is much more important in terms of area occupied (farmland and forest land cover approximately 90 % of the EU's land surface), and rural population and income (10).


The Italian agriculture is highly diversified in terms of its main characteristics, especially between the Alpine and Apennine regions and those of the northern, central and southern regions of the country. This diversification ranges, for example, from the intensive, high productivity farming of the northern regions to an extremely marginal situation in the mountain zones and the south of the country (1).

75% of Italian farms are specialised in crops: 21.3% in olives; 12.2% in cereals, oil seed and protein crops, 9.9% vineyards, 10.5% were engaged in mixed cropping and 10.4% were general field cropping.... Between 1990 and 2007, the most important livestock categories which have experienced a reduction in number, are dairy cattle (-30%) and non-dairy cattle (-13%). While, for swine and poultry there has been an increase of 10% and 9%, respectively (23).

Vulnerabilities Italy

In southern Europe large decreases in yield are expected for spring-sown crops (e.g. maize, sunflower and soybeans) (2), spring-summer crops (e.g. tomatoes) (35) as well as for autumn-sown crops (e.g. winter and spring wheat) (3,35). The predicted increase in extreme weather events is expected to reduce average yield (4,22). In particular, in the European Mediterranean region increases in the frequency of extreme climate events during specific crop development stages (e.g. heat stress during flowering period, rainy days during sowing time), together with higher rainfall intensity and longer dry spells, is likely to reduce the yield of summer crops (e.g. sunflowers, soybean) (5, 24).

Lengthening of the growing period of about 10-15 days per each °C of rise in yearly average temperature and consequent shortening of cold winter periods are expected. Consequently, olive-tree, citrus tree and vine cultivations would be favoured in the north of Italy, whereas corn cultivations would be disadvantaged in the south; all ecosystems are expected to shift to the North and towards the mountain heights: about 100 km northward and 150 meters upwards per each °C of rise in yearly average temperature. Such movements represent a potential danger to Italy due to the territory orography features and to temporal incompatibility between the movements of the ecosystems and climate change (6). For the southeast of Italy (Apulia region), for the period 2001–2050, negative impacts of climate change (drier and hotter conditions) have been suggested on wine production (decrease by 20 - 26 %) and olives production (harvest decrease by 8 - 19 %), and minor impacts on wheat harvest (37); in these results, no adaptation of crops and no fertilization effect of CO2 was considered.

Crop yields will not change significantly in a climate warming scenario up to 2°C (1,35): in fact, under these conditions associated with an increase of atmospheric CO2, growth of several species will be favoured (provided that sufficient water and soil nutrients are available). Problems will arise for those regions where climate change is causing processes of aridity and soil degradation, and for those regions where frequency and intensity of extreme meteorological events are increasing (1).

In terms of crop production, research outcomes show that the change foreseen for 2020 and 2080 would result in a yield decrease from 1.9% to about 22.4% in the southern Europe regions, caused primarily by probable reduction of the growing season, by extreme events more frequent during the production cycle phases, as for example strong precipitations during sowing dates, heat waves during the flowering period and longer dry spells (6,20).

For Italy, the change of crop yield in 2080 referred to 1990 has been estimated based on several combinations of models and scenarios; the outcomes range from a 21.8% decrease to a 2.0% increase (13). More recent results (SRES A1B scenario) show both negative (soybean, maize, sweet potato, green beans; up to a few %) and positive (wheat, potato, maize; up to 10.8%) yield changes in Southern Europe for the 2090s compared with the 1990s (25). Results depend on, amongst others, the scenarios and models used: for SRES emissions scenarios A2 and B2, and different models, the yield of winter wheat, spring wheat, rice, grassland, maize and soybeans has been estimated to decrease from 1961-1990 to 2071-2100 by 0 to 27% (26). For durum wheat even a crop yield reduction of 71-80% has been estimated for the 2080s, compared with 1961-1990, under both the SRES A2 and B2 emissions scenarios (29). Besides, also pathogens (27) and ozone surface exposure (28) may negatively affect crop yield.

The heat-wave of 2003 was associated with annual precipitation deficits of up to 300 mm, and drought was a major contributor to the estimated 30% fall in gross primary land-related production in Europe (7). This reduced agricultural productivity and increased production costs, with an estimated loss of more than € 11 billion (8).

General warming and increased frequency of heat-waves and droughts in the Mediterranean, semi-arid and arid pastures will reduce livestock productivity (5).

Soil erosion

Parts of Tuscany, Italy, are highly vulnerable to erosion (38). Soil erosion depends on rainfall intensity and duration, land cover, and slope and soil physical parameters, such as texture, moisture and aggregation. Storm events area characterized by very high rainfall intensity and may have a huge impact on soil erosion risk. A local increase in the frequency or intensity of extreme rainfall events may therefore result in further soil degradation. Soil texture in Tuscany is clay loam, sandy loam and loamy sand. It was shown that extreme rainfall intensity (per hour and per minute) during the period 1989–2010 increased especially for the winter, followed by spring for the coastal area and autumn for the inland area (38). These results agree with those of other studies for Tuscany, Sicily and Spain (39).

The likely climate-change driven increase in rainfall erosivity could have strong adverse effects for the study area and potentially for a larger area of the Mediterranean, such as an exacerbated soil degradation and transfer of sediments, nutrients and contaminants into the water table (38). Soil exposure to rainfall is especially high in autumn, since the majority of fields are ploughed and sown with cold season cereals or left fallow (38).


The projected warming in the period 2031-2060 compared with 1971-2000, mostly in spring and summer, might expose the crops to conditions likely to have an adverse impact on the phenological stages of the plants, which, as a consequence, may affect the plants’ production and crop quality. The crops of potatoes, wheat and tomato may be negatively affected from the warming projected over the three islands. The impact on olive tree is not clear (47).

Benefits and opportunities Italy

Lengthening of the growing period of about 10-15 days per each °C of rise in yearly average temperature and consequent shortening of cold winter periods are expected. Consequently, olive-tree, citrus tree and vine cultivations would be favoured in the north of Italy (1,5).

In temperate regions, moderate to medium local increases in temperature (1-3ºC), along with associated CO2 increase and rainfall changes can have small beneficial impacts on crops, including wheat, maize and rice (5).

An assessment of land suitability and crop productivity for olive and wheat in Italy under rain-fed conditions (based on two GCMs and the SRES A2 and B2 scenarios) indicated expansions of suitable land area for both crops in the 21st century compared with 1961–1990. Lands suitable for wheat increased from 36% to 38% in northern Italy, from 13% to 15% in central Italy and from 20% to 23% in the south. For olive, the major increase of suitable area was observed in northern Italy where lands suitable increase from 0.2 % to 24%, (in central Italy from 1% to 17% and in the south from 26% to 37%). Consequently, these results showed an increase of potential crop production in particular for olive (+69% in the central regions and +43% in the southern regions) but also for wheat (+19% in the North, +8% in central Italy and +14% in the south) (31).

For some cropland areas crop suitability may increase, for others it may decrease. Crop suitability was estimated based on a large number of GCMs, two emissions scenarios (SRES A1B and 2) and one crop suitability impacts model. By 2030 an improvement of the suitability of cultivation was projected for 7% of current Italian cropland, and for 7%-9% by 2100. On the other hand, between 21% and 50% of current Italian croplands was projected to undergo declining suitability by 2030. By 2100 this rises to 27%-86%, depending on the emissions scenario. It was concluded that for Italy the balance is more towards declining suitability than improving suitability in the course of the 21st  century (32).

Rice production

Although not being a staple food crop in the European Union, rice consumption is steadily increasing in several Mediterranean countries (41). Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and France are the five top European producing countries. Climate change impacts on rice crop production was studied for two locations: Lomellina (Italy) and the Camargue (France). These locations represent 22 % of the total EU rice harvested area (42). This was done with rice crop models applied under a range of climate change scenarios for 2030 (the period 2021-2040) and 2070 (the period 2061-2080), considering projections from four climate models (GCM’s) and both a low- and high-end scenario of climate change (the so-called RCP 2.6 and 8.5 scenarios) (40).

The results indicate that average potential rice yield in the study areas would decrease by 8 % in 2030 and 12 % in 2070 with respect to current conditions (the period 1991-2010 as a reference) if no adaptation strategies would be implemented. This impact would result from the shortening of the crop phenological phases due to temperature increase and the rising occurrence of heat stress during flowering and ripening due to temperature extremes. These yield decreases can be turned into yield increases, however, if adequate adaptation strategies are implemented. The study shows that climate change, rather than being a threat, represents an opportunity for European rice growers, as the implementation of adaptation strategies could overturn the situation, leading to an average yield increase of 28 % in 2030 and 25 % in 2070 with respect to current yields. The effective adaptation strategies are the adoption of varieties with longer crop cycle and, to a lesser degree, anticipated sowing dates. These strategies can be considered autonomous adaptations, as they represent short-term adjustments that are commonly implemented by farmers (40). 

Olive yields

Climate change projections for the Mediterranean Basin (moderate RCP4.5 and high-end RCP8.5) suggest that olive productivity in Southern Europe will probably decrease in the western areas, particularly in the Iberian Peninsula (44). These results are in agreement with older studies (45). Conversely, climate change will tend to benefit some olive-producing areas particularly in the eastern parts of Southern Europe (Italy, Greece). These projections refer to the period 2041-2070 in comparison to the period 1989-2005 as a reference. Although the overall higher temperatures in the growing season and higher CO2 may have positive impacts, other factors, such as extreme temperatures during the warmer part of the year, and additional threats such as the risk of pests and diseases, may offset this positive effect (44). Thus, climate change may negatively impact the viability of farms in the south of Portugal and Spain and, consequently, increase the risk of abandonment of olive groves (46).

Across the main olive-farming regions over southern Europe, the future increase in CO2 concentration may compensate the negative effects of higher evaporative demand and diminished water supply resulting in an enhancement of water use efficiency and carbon capture potential in olive orchards. Under a moderate (scenario RCP4.5) and high-end scenario (RCP8.5) of climate change a decrease in yield up to 28 % is expected over the Iberian Peninsula while yield is expected to increase up to 26 % over the centre of the Mediterranean by the end of this century (48).

Vulnerabilities Europe - Climate change not main driver

Socio-economic factors and technological developments

Climate change is only one driver among many that will shape agriculture and rural areas in future decades. Socio-economic factors and technological developments will need to be considered alongside agro-climatic changes to determine future trends in the sector (10).

From research it was concluded that socio-economic assumptions have a much greater effect on the scenario results of future changes in agricultural production and land use then the climate scenarios (14).

The European population is expected to decline by about 8% over the period from 2000 to 2030 (15).

Scenarios on future changes in agriculture largely depend on assumptions about technological development for future agricultural land use in Europe (14). It has been estimated that changes in the productivity of food crops in Europe over the period 1961–1990 were strongest related to technology development and that effects of climate change were relatively small. For the period till 2080 an increase in crop productivity for Europe has been estimated between 25% and 163%, of which between 20% and 143% is due to technological development and 5-20% is due to climate change and CO2 fertilisation. The contribution of climate change just by itself is approximately a minor 1% (16).

Care should be taken, however, in drawing firm conclusions from the apparent lack of sensitivity of agricultural land use to climate change. At the regional scale there are winners and losers (in terms of yield changes), but these tend to cancel each other out when aggregated to the whole of Europe (14).

Future changes in land use

If technology continues to progress at current rates then the area of agricultural land would need to decline substantially. Such declines will not occur if there is a correspondingly large increase in the demand for agricultural goods, or if political decisions are taken either to reduce crop productivity through policies that encourage extensification or to accept widespread overproduction (14).

Cropland and grassland areas (for the production of food and fibre) may decline by as much as 50% of current areas for some scenarios. Such declines in production areas would result in large parts of Europe becoming surplus to the requirement of food and fibre production (14). Over the shorter term (up to 2030) changes in agricultural land area may be small (17).

Although it is difficult to anticipate how this land would be used in the future, it seems that continued urban expansion, recreational areas (such as for horse riding) and forest land use would all be likely to take up at least some of the surplus. Furthermore, whilst the substitution of food production by energy production was considered in these scenarios, surplus land would provide further opportunities for the cultivation of bioenergy crops (14).

Europe is a major producer of biodiesel, accounting for 90% of the total production worldwide (18). In the Biofuels Progress Report (19), it is estimated that in 2020, the total area of arable land required for biofuel production will be between 7.6 million and 18.3 million hectares, equivalent to approximately 8% and 19% respectively of total arable land in 2005.

The agricultural area of Europe has already diminished by about 13% in the 40 years since 1960 (14).

Adaptation strategies

In the short term there will be a need to adapt and optimize the agronomic production to the different climatic conditions without radically changing the production system, such as (1):

  • employment of cultivar with different characteristics;
  • substitution of the existing species (and promoting traditional cultivations resistant to the minor availability of water);
  • agronomic practices change and fertilizers and anti-parasites switch;
  • introduction of new techniques to keep the soil moisture and improve plant watering Management.

It is also important to maintain sufficiently high levels of soil organic matter (20).

In the long term there will be a need to adopt more radical measures involving structural changes that need to be planned at a high level, such as (1):

  • land use change;
  • development of new cultivars, especially those that better adapt to heat and water scarcity;
  • substitution of the existing species (and promoting traditional cultivations resistant to the minor availability of water);
  • changing the agricultural species micro-climate.

As regards adaptation policies and measures that could be adopted in the short and medium term, the most urgent are those concerning the improvement of the irrigation water management, including the adoption of the most efficient irrigation technologies (1).

Crops vary in their resistance to drought, water requirements and the time of year at which the requirement peaks. These factors, together with irrigation management and soil moisture conservation can all reduce crop water use. Deficit irrigation is a technique that aims to reduce the amount of water applied to below the 'theoretical irrigation need' on the basis that the substantial water savings realised outweigh the modest reduction in crop yield. Improving the timing of irrigation so that it closely follows crop water requirements can lead to significant water savings (11). Water pricing can trigger reduced water use via a number of possible farmer responses, including improving irrigation efficiency, reducing the area of irrigated land, ceasing irrigation and modifying agricultural practices such as cropping patterns and timing of irrigation (12).

A higher CO2 concentration improves the water use efficiency of a number of crops. Therefore, the shift of the ordinary sowing date could be a reliable and efficient adaptation strategy for wheat cultivation in this Mediterranean area. An earlier planting date could produce an additional increase in wheat yield, reducing the negative effect on yield due to changed climate change conditions (30,31).

Model calculations (33) show that over the Mediterranean basin:

  • an advanced sowing time may result in a successful strategy especially for summer crops. The advancement of anthesis and grain filling stages allowed the summer crops to partially escape the heat waves and drought;
  • irrigation highly increase the yield of the selected crops. In general, requirements for summer crops were larger than for winter crops. Accordingly, the beneficial effects of this strategy were more evident for summer crops.

The use of irrigation to tackle summer water stress in southern Europe include a number of structural adaptations for enhancing water storage via increasing storage capacity for surface water (construction of  retention reservoirs and dams), and groundwater (aquifer recharge); rainwater harvesting and storage; conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater; water transfer; desalination of sea water; removing of invasive non-native vegetation; and deep well pumping (34).

Financial insurance for extreme events can play an important role in hedging against the implications of climate change. Farmers that have more crop diversity less likely adopt an insurance scheme that buffers against the implications of crop failure: crop diversification may act as a substitute strategy for adopting disaster insurance (36).

Olive yields

With respect to the olive sector, an adequate and timely planning of suitable adaptation measures needs to be adopted, including the improvement of water use efficiency (smart irrigation strategies), the implementation of intensive plantation systems instead of traditional olive groves, selecting more adapted olive tree varieties, with higher drought and heat tolerance, and for the longer-term the northward shift of olive tree cultivation and/or its displacement to higher elevations to avoid areas with severe/extreme heat stress (44).

Soil erosion

Soil exposure to rainfall is especially high in autumn, since the majority of fields are ploughed and sown with cold season cereals or left fallow (38). Erosion vulnerability may be reduced by a number of soil protection measures (38):

  • the establishment of permanent soil cover through an increase in perennial forage cultivation and the application of cover cropping techniques such as living mulch and/or intercropping;
  • sowing winter cereals earlier, i.e. in October, would achieve effective cover and root system development already in November;
  • crop residue retention at the soil surface and reduced or no-tillage systems would also be valuable techniques in these areas (see also 43).

Policy adaptation - mitigation

Policy will have to support the adaptation of European agriculture to climate change by encouraging the flexibility of land use, crop production, farming systems etc. In doing so, it is necessary to consider the multifunctional role of agriculture, and to strike a variable balance between economic, environmental and social functions in different European regions. Policy will also need to be concerned with agricultural strategies to mitigate climate change through a reduction in emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, an increase in carbon sequestration in agricultural soils and the growing of energy crops to substitute fossil energy use. The policies to support adaptation and mitigation to climate change will need to be linked closely to the development of agri-environmental schemes in the European Union Common Agricultural Policy (21).


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Italy.  

  1. Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea of Italy (2007)
  2. Audsley et al. (2006), in: Carraro and Sgobbi (2008)
  3. Olesen et al. (2006); Santos, Forbes and Moita (2002), both in: Carraro and Sgobbi (2008)
  4. Trnka et al. (2004), in: Carraro and Sgobbi (2008)
  5. Carraro and Sgobbi (2008)
  6. JRC (2007), in: Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea of Italy (2007)
  7. Ciais et al. (2005), in: Carraro and Sgobbi (2008)
  8. Olesen and Bindi (2003), in: Carraro and Sgobbi (2008)
  9. EEA (2006), in: EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  10. EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
  11. Amigues et al. (2006), in: EEA (2009)
  12. EEA (2009)
  13. EEA (2003)
  14. Rounsevell et al. (2005)
  15. UN (2004), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  16. Ewert et al. (2005), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  17. Van Meijl et al. (2006), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
  18. JNCC (2007), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  19. European Commission (2006), in: Anderson (ed.) (2007)
  20. Ciscar et al. (2009), in: Behrens et al. (2010)
  21. Olesen and Bindi (2002)
  22. Iglesias et al. (2009)
  23. Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea of Italy (2009)
  24. Giannakopoulos et al. (2005, 2009), in: MET Office (2011)
  25. Tatsumi et al. (2011), in: MET Office (2011)
  26. Ciscar et al. (2009), in: MET Office (2011)
  27. Luck et al. (2011), in: MET Office (2011)
  28. Avnery et al. (2011), in: MET Office (2011)
  29. Ferrara et al. (2010), in: MET Office (2011)
  30. Mereu (2010), in: MET Office (2011)
  31. Mereu et al. (2011), in: MET Office (2011)
  32. MET Office (2011)
  33. Moriondo et al. (2010)
  34. Kundzewicz et al. (2007), in: Moriondo et al. (2010)
  35. Ventrella et al. (2012)
  36. Di Falco et al. (2014)
  37. Lionello et al. (2014)
  38. Vallebona et al. (2015)
  39. Ramos and Martínez-Casasnovas (2006); Arnone et al. (2013); Bartolini et al. (2013, 2014), all in: Vallebona et al. (2015)
  40. Bregaglio et al. (2017)
  41. Ferrero and Tinarelli (2007); Worldatlas (2016), both in: Bregaglio et al. (2017)
  42. FAOSTAT (2014), in: Bregaglio et al. (2017)
  43. Iocola et al. (2017)
  44. Fraga et al. (2019)
  45. Ponti et al. (2014); Tanasijevic et al. (2014), both in: Fraga et al. (2019)
  46. de Graaff et al. (2010), in: Fraga et al. (2019)
  47. Varotsos et al. (2021)
  48. Mairech et al. (2021)

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