The Local reported on the unusually early spell of warm weather earlier this week and concerns over water levels as temperatures passed 30C in the southwest of the country for the first time this year. Since that report, the number of départements under water restrictions because of drought has risen from 10 to 15. One area in the east of Bouches-du-Rhône is already at ‘crisis’ level.
National forecaster Meteo-France said the country was in the grip of a hot spell that is “notable for its timing, its duration and its geographical spread”, and had recorded a 20-percent drop in rainfall nationally between September 2021 and April 2022.
Cumuls de précipitations déficitaires depuis le début de l'année sur une majeure partie du pays.
🇫🇷 A l'échelle de la France :
🔴Janvier : déficit 40%
🔴Février : déficit 30%
🔴Mars : déficit 40%
🔴Avril : déficit 35%
— Météo-France (@meteofrance) May 5, 2022
French farmers are worried about their harvests. France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.
The hot, dry conditions could not have come at a worse time. On Monday, France’s Agriculture Ministry warned about the impact of an unseasonably hot and dry stretch which it said “will have an impact on cereal production” in France following lower-than-average winter rainfall.
As well as wheat, other crops sown in winter, such as barley, are in a crucial development stage, while corn and sunflower production over the summer could also be hit.
Farmers have had to water wheat already, otherwise yields would drop dramatically. “We wouldn’t normally water at this time of the year but the dry periods are coming earlier and earlier,” one farmer in the Loiret told AFP. “If we don’t water today, we’ll lose 50 percent of our output.”
The war in Ukraine means wheat prices are already at record levels – already at more than €400 a tonne in Europe for delivery in September, up from €260/tonne a year before Russia’s invasion. A strong harvest in France would offset some of the global food chain issues caused by the conflict.
But, because of the lack of rain, two-thirds of France is already experiencing dry to very dry soils – prompting concern of a soil or agricultural drought, in which the water deficit in soil is bad enough to alter the proper development of vegetation.
Over the past three months, soils have remained very dry for the season in the eastern half of France, Corsica and locally in northern France – a situation that occurs, on average, one year in 10.
They have been extremely dry over the same period in PACA, Corsica, the Massif Central, parts of Burgundy, the Grand-East and Hauts-de-France, a one-year-in-25 situation.
That means the prospect is for a smaller than usual wheat harvest. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher.
“We already had markets that were very nervous. This is adding to tensions,” Nathan Cordier, a grain market analysts at agricultural consultancy Agritel, told AFP. “France is one of the major players in the wheat market and people are counting on it. “The question is whether export volumes will be enough.”
“No region has been spared. We can see the earth cracking every day,” Christiane Lambert, of France’s biggest agricultural union FNSEA, told AFP on Monday. “If things carry on like this, farmers who can irrigate their crops will be able to deal with it but the others will face a dramatic reduction in yields.”
France’s current hot spell is expected to last until the middle of next week. Forecasts beyond that time are too unreliable to be taken seriously, but Meteo France has warned that the climate trend for the summer is that it will most likely be drier and hotter than normal.
If rain returns towards the end of the month and into June, experts say it will partially compensate for the water deficit in the year to date, but will not have much effect on the water table or river flows.