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"The struggle to preserve Italy's beloved dish risotto from disappearing"
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“The struggle to preserve Italy’s beloved dish risotto from disappearing”


From the start of 2022’s winter and through most of spring, Luigi Ferraris, a 58-year-old rice farmer from Mortara, a town located in the Po valley, held onto hope. The region had experienced a 40% decrease in rainfall during the first half of the year, and the snow in the Alps was scarce, resulting in an 88% reduction in water flow from melting snow into the Po River. This led to historically low levels in the river and its surrounding canals.

Ferraris remains optimistic that the situation will eventually resolve itself. He initially assumed the water shortage would be short-lived.

In the past, obtaining water was never a challenge in this flat area. It is located in the center of the Po Valley, also known as the Pianura Padana, a region of frequent flooding in northern Italy where much of the land was once covered in swamps and a breeding ground for malaria. Over many years, farmers in the area worked hard to reclaim the land by building drainage systems and flattening the terrain, gradually turning the marshy lands into fields and rice paddies.

According to Alberto Lasagna, who leads the Pavia chapter of the General Confederation of Italian Agriculture, the main concern in this region has always been preventing water from coming in, rather than the opposite.

The River Po with rice fields stretching to the horizon.

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Ferraris only truly understood the magnitude of his potential loss when May 2022 arrived and his rice fields were no longer their usual vibrant green. “They were completely brown,” he recalls. “It was like looking at a field of dry straw.”

He spent 37 years managing his rice farm, which he inherited from his grandfather, but had never experienced such a devastating loss. Along with many others, he lost over 50% of his harvest.

Italy produces the most rice in all of Europe, accounting for 50% of the rice produced in the EU. The majority of their rice is grown in the Po valley, located in the northern part of the country. This is where the distinctive types of risotto rice, including carnaroli and arborio, are cultivated.

Closeup of a man’s hands holding a rice plant about to flower.

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In the year 2022, a severe drought, the worst in two centuries, affected the Po River, which is the longest river in Italy. This river is crucial for a complex system of canals that were constructed between the Middle Ages and 1800s, providing irrigation for paddy fields. The country of Italy lost approximately 26,000 hectares (64,000 acres) of rice fields, according to the national rice authority, Ente Nazionale Risi, resulting in a decrease in rice production of more than 30%. The following year, the drought continued, resulting in the loss of crops from another 7,500 hectares of rice fields.

Currently, rice cultivators are facing challenges in regaining stability after the devastating effects of the drought, placing their future in jeopardy. According to Marta Galvagno, a biometeorologist at the Environmental Protection Agency of Aosta Valley, as temperatures continue to rise, extreme events will become more frequent and severe.

Biometeorologist Marta Galvagno at work in the field.View image in fullscreen
An eddy covariance sensor in the trees.View image in fullscreen
Marta Galvagno prepares to climb the meterological towerView image in fullscreen

In the last couple of years, Ferraris, along with other farmers in the region, has made efforts to vary the types of crops he grows in order to mitigate the challenges posed by the changing climate. He has decreased the amount of land used for rice fields and begun cultivating crops like corn, which have a lower water requirement.

Ferraris, a farmer who suffered a loss of €150,000 [£129,000] in 2022, expresses concerns about the changing climate and its potential for future droughts. He primarily grows rice on his farm, but has also begun closely monitoring snowfall in the Alps and the water levels in Lake Maggiore daily. “It’s difficult to get a good night’s rest,” he explains.

Ferraris expresses specific concern for the cultivation of carnaroli classico, a sophisticated type of rice. Due to its resilience to heat and capacity to absorb flavors, carnaroli is renowned as the top choice for risotto. However, it is also highly delicate and susceptible to climate variations.

Antonio the acquaiolo (water man)

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Antonio uses a system of floodgates and the natural terrain to adjust water levels. Python

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A gauge to measure the water levels in the Cavour canal in the city of Chivasso

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Due to a drought last year, Ferrari’s carnaroli classico harvest only yielded a marketable amount of 38% after undergoing husking and whitening. The rice grains tended to split during the process.

Giovanni Pochettino, a farmer located in the Collina Po natural reserve recognized by Unesco, grows carnaroli rice and shares the concerns expressed by Ferraris. He is situated less than a kilometer away from the river banks.

Pochettino explains that the production of carnaroli rice is becoming increasingly difficult due to the high temperatures in August. The rice was originally created almost a century ago when the climate was vastly different.

Pochettino has been contemplating ending the production of carnaroli, which he equates to a high-quality wine. He explains that the profit margins are minimal, and the rice mills that purchase his crop demand flawless grains. The financial reward does not adequately compensate for the arduous efforts required to cultivate this type of rice.

Giovanni Pochettino preparing to fertilise his carnaroli cropView image in fullscreen

According to Filip Haxhari, a researcher from Ente Nazionale Risi, the extended dry spell has caused a 50% decrease in carnaroli rice production in 2022, posing a threat to this special rice variety. Haxhari explains, “Carnaroli and similar varieties possess a unique genetic trait that enables them to absorb flavors, aromas, and seasonings, creating an authentic risotto that sets them apart from all other rice varieties in the world.”

The 2022 drought of the Po River, as described by hydrologist Francesco Avanzi of Cima research foundation, can be largely attributed to the unusually warm temperatures and minimal snowfall in the Alps. This region typically contributes approximately two-thirds of the water that feeds the Po River annually through melting snow.

According to Avanzi, the snow typically melts at a gradual pace from April to June, allowing it to effectively seep into the soil. The melted snow is especially vital during the summer months, refilling the river during times of limited rainfall.

“Avanzi notes that the gradual release of snowmelt ensures a steady water supply for rice farmers, guaranteeing higher river flows during the months of May to July.”

Hydrologist Francesco Avanzi looks over at a glacier plateau in the Aosta valleyView image in fullscreen

In the year 2022, the amount of snow water available in the Alps decreased by approximately 60% compared to the previous decade’s average. Avanzi states, “Winter 2021-2022 was the most severe, but 2023 was similar.” The latest report from Cima shows that in February, there was a 63% decline in snow water resources. Avanzi adds, “The situation is not very optimistic.”

Recently, more and more rice farmers in northern Italy have started practicing “dry sowing” for their rice crops. This method requires less water and labor, but experts have noticed an unexpected result of the soil becoming even drier. According to Lasagna, the water that was previously used to flood the fields actually seeped into the soil, ultimately returning to the river.

Haxhari and his colleagues are currently focused on creating novel types of rice that have a lower water requirement and are better able to withstand the effects of changing weather conditions. Haxhari, a dedicated researcher for over four decades, shares, “The drought of 2022 was truly devastating. I have never witnessed such a high number of plants dying. However, it presented a crucial chance for our research.”

The occurrences provided a chance for researchers to evaluate a newly developed drought-resistant rice type called “nuovo prometeo” which is now available for purchase.

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A researcher in the experimental rice fields at Ente Nazionale Risi

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Showing the different types of rice plant rootsView image in fullscreen

The Nuovo Prometeo rice is not recommended for making risotto. Haxhari’s team is working on creating new rice types that will be suitable for this dish, but Ferraris is not convinced that smaller rice producers, who prioritize high quality, will see any advantages from these changes. According to him, in order to attract customers, it is imperative to concentrate on producing top-notch products.

The issue of water consumption continues to be a worry. In 2022, the rice farm owned by Ferraris experienced a decrease of 90% in water supply. According to Ferraris, rice production cannot occur without the use of water.

The recent lack of rain was potentially made worse by issues with infrastructure. A study from Italy’s national statistics bureau Istat revealed that, because of cracks in the structure, the country’s water pipes lost 42% of their contents in 2020. Specialists in climate and farming suggest that implementing new methods for storing water and improving the current distribution network are vital in lessening the impact of future droughts.

Galvagno states that implementing mitigation and adaptation methods can prevent a disaster. As scientists, they have exhausted all possible explanations. The key missing pieces now are financial resources and governmental determination to put these strategies into action.

An agronomist’s boots hang out to dry.

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Source: theguardian.com