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After Horrific Winter, Russian Farmers Worry About Climate Change

Snowy fields in Siberia
Snowy fields in Siberia
Kirill Zhurenkov

MOSCOW - The past month has brought record-breaking snowfall and cold snaps throughout central Russia. But the bad weather has done much more than spoil people’s moods and clog roads -- it has raised new alarms about global climate change.

First the data: March was one of the coldest in the past 50 years in Russia, with snowfall breaking a 40-year record. There was a total of 70 centimeters of snow in Moscow last month, while the Ministry of Emergency Occurrences cites extreme weather situations in 13 of the country’s central regions. The bad weather extended south to Kiev in Ukraine as well, where unusual snowfall closed down the city.

Now, April brings a quick rise in the mercury levels, giving us a meterological roller coaster with little time to catch our breath.

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Snow in Moscow's Red Square - Photo: Paolo Crosetto

For the most part, we have yet to figure out the economic costs of this weather, but in Ukraine some observers are already sounding the alarm about lower harvest yields. The head of Russia’s national weather service said that seeds will have to be sown a couple weeks later than usual, which will mean losses of around 15%.

People are also worried that nighttime temperature drops will damage summer crops like apricots and peaches. Of course, the weather extremes will also affect grain harvests.

Andrei Sizov Jr., the director of the agriculture analytical center SovEkon, explains: “We were forecasting a grain harvest of around 84-89 million tons this year, but the central region is having a difficult winter, and that shortens the amount of pollination time. That means more work for people and machines, which means the quality of the harvest will suffer. In addition, more time under snow will give more opportunity to certain grain diseases to develop, which will in turn lead to lower quality harvests.”

Other experts, however, are telling people not to worry. Last year was a very bad year, with only 71 million tons of grain harvested, but that kind of loss is unlikely to happen. Sizov also says the climate can’t be blamed for all harvest woes, that other factors, like export markets, can have an important impact.

“The weather is totally crazy”

Nonetheless, the climate remains the main risk factor for farmers, both in Russia and abroad. “In most of the agricultural areas in Europe and the U.S. there is a drought. In Australia the weather is totally crazy – on one half of the continent there is drought, on the other, constant flooding,” said Boris Frumkin, head of the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “This prolonged winter is not a good sign for us.”

Experts say that the major March freezes are bad for both the winter crops and the yet-to-be-sown spring crops. According to them, the effects could be felt not only in the main agricultural areas, but also throughout the country. “Given that most of the agricultural land is not fertilized at all, it is much harder to find another way to get products to the buyers than it is in Europe,” Frumkin says.

Experts believe that Russia needs to follow the Europe’s example, where there are ways to minimize the effects of crops losses. For example, a new reform is underway in the European Union to investigate ways to adapt to climate change, such as providing incentives for farmers to cultivate at least three different crops.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agrees that farmers around the world need to adapt to a changing climate – things such as learning to collect water when it rains to be used in the hot months and to start cultivating drought-tolerant crops.

According to the FAO, Russia and Ukraine will recover from last year’s crop disaster, and the only country expected to have a lower yield this year than last is the United States, where severe drought from June to November damaged this year’s crops. Elsewhere in the world, the crop predictions are still looking pretty good.

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