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European drought raises fears of food riots

June 2, 2011

theaustralian

european droughts

The cracked river-bed near the village of Ancenis, in western France, where severe water restrictions have been impressed. Picture: AFP Source: AFP

BERNARD Maquis’s cattle would normally be grazing in the lush green pastures of the Limousin region, in central France, at this time of year.

Instead, they are eating hay intended for the winter after months of drought have turned the fields yellow.

He is wondering whether it might be better to sell his cows at a reduced price rather than find himself without fodder by the end of the autumn. “I’m starting to sleep badly,” he said.

Mr Maquis is not alone. With northern Europe facing its worst drought since 1976, politicians in the West are expecting protests from farmers, consumer discontent and a strain on budgets. Third World nations are braced for riots as Europe’s heatwave creates a rise in food prices and drives millions deeper into poverty.

“We are in a situation of crisis and of crisis management,” French Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said. Meteorologists say that northern Europe has had 50 per cent less rain than normal over the past two months, while temperatures have been 4C higher than usual.

In France, water restrictions have been implemented across more than half the country and the drought is already comparable to 1976, when a heatwave wrecked the annual harvest.

The difference, according to Michele Blanchard, an engineer in the climatology division of Meteo-France, the weather office, is that “in 1976, the high temperatures came in June, not in April”.

Germany has had twice as many hours of sunshine as it would normally expect in the spring. Some German regions have had just 5 per cent of their standard rainfall. “We desperately need rain,” said Andrea Adams, spokeswoman for the Farmers Association, in Rhineland-Palatinate.

She said that the wheat was yellow, the sugar beet had barely grown at all and the rye was “curling up and dying”.

In the Limousin, Mr Maquis said that the corn to fatten his cattle in the winter should be 20cm high by now. “But it’s just vegetating,” he said, raising the prospect that he will have to buy in fodder. “But at the price we have to pay, it’s not even worth trying. We may as well just shut up shop.”

With breeders across France beginning to sell animals they cannot feed, protests are under way. In southwest France, farmers blocked roads to a motorway for several hours last week after they failed to obtain temporary permission to take water from rivers.

The French Government has asked Brussels to pay 710 million ($948m) in European Union aid several months early. But the French farmers’ union also wants the state to underwrite interest-free loans to help les agriculteurs through the summer.

In France, bakers’ unions are predicting an increase in the cost of baguettes, while in North Rhine-Westphalia, the German region, tomatoes are 26 per cent more expensive than last year. Governing parties fear that the rises will create anti-government sentiment that extreme movements will exploit.

With droughts also reported in China and southern US states, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN fears rioting in poor countries.

But not everyone is complaining. Cherry growers said their fruit was of exceptional quality, the European tourist industry is also pleased, while the salt harvesters of Guerande, in western France, are happy to gather produce two months earlier than usual.

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