Risotto rice harvest fears as Italian rice paddies dry up amid lack of rain

Risotto rice production in Italy’s Po River valley is under serious threat as a historic drought continues to cause rice paddies to become dry and toxic.

Farmers say crops of rice used for risotto could be jeopardized for years by the rising salt content, which is seeping into the land.

“As you can see, the situation is tragic, because we are talking about a loss of almost 60%,” said rice farmer Elisa Moretto. “These losses are not final yet because, in addition to the salt water problem, we also have the great heat.”

“The 2022 harvest is at risk,” he added, saying the rice plants may not even be able to make ears and ripen this year due to the extreme conditions.

Rice plants in the Po River basin in northern Italy rely on water from aquifers. These are becoming increasingly salty due to the river Po being low, which is allowing more seawater to flow through the delta.

The amount of water in the Po River – Italy’s largest – reached just 95 cubic meters (3,350 cubic feet) per second last month, due to drought conditions caused by a lack of melting snow and seasonal rain.

This water level is one-tenth of the annual average.

Moretto, owner of the Moretto Agricultural Society, warned that these environmental problems could have a permanent effect.

“A big problem for us is also that if the salt remains in the soil, we run the risk of losing future crops as well, because a salty field does not yield, it burns any kind of plant and sown crops,” she said. “In addition to short-term damage, we have to deal with everything that is considered future damage.”

The Po Valley, which accounts for nearly a third of Italy’s agricultural production, is facing an unprecedented drought.

The water levels of the River Po that crosses the region are 2 meters (7 feet) lower than average, while temperatures in June are 3.5 degrees higher. These environmental extremes are the result of human-induced climate change.

It’s been almost two months since the Po Valley rice farmers were unable to extract fresh water for agriculture, creating huge spillover effects for their businesses.

Moretto hoped his business could save a third of its crop this year. But she questioned whether it was possible to make a profit, as other factors, such as rising fuel and fertilizer costs, are also taking a toll.

“I cannot determine the economic loss,” she said, citing how the price of the fertilizer rose from €40 to €120 per 100 kg.

Rodolfo Laurenti, deputy director of the Po Delta drainage consortium, told reporters that the salt level recorded in the water of the Po River is far above what is suitable for agriculture.

“Right now we are recording the value of 21 grams of salt per liter of water,” he said. “This value is very high and is not suitable for distributing water in agriculture, as the maximum limit is 1 gram of salt per liter”, he says.

The impact of the drought could last for many years, as salt water is seeping inland at distances never before recorded and penetrating aquifers – underground layers of rock that can hold water.

The Po River is fed by a delta, an area of ​​fresh and salt water exchange. However, with the river at historic lows, more salt water is flowing upstream, which is causing salinization problems in the region.

According to Giancarlo Mantovani, director of the Po Delta drainage consortium, this will cause “permanent damage”.

“When salt water goes into the water table… it takes years and huge amounts of fresh water to get rid of it,” he said, describing the issue as an “environmental problem.”

“The vegetation on the banks of rivers, amphibians and birds have disappeared, and the entire ecosystem that lives around a freshwater environment, as we had in this territory, is no longer here”, he says.

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