How Can Europe’s Farmers Prepare for Another Drought

If drought becomes the ‘new normal’ for Europe, what can farmers do to try to maintain both yields and quality?

May 22, 2023
3 mins
Gali Carmi

Few of Europe’s farmers will need reminding that the summer of 2022 was the driest in 150 years. But with a new study concluding that the continent’s been in drought since 2018, what can farmers do to deal with this ‘very precarious’ water situation?

Thanks to an exceptionally dry and warm winter which has delivered substantially less rain and snow, much of southern and western Europe now has significant soil moisture deficit and critically low river flows, according to the Joint Research Centre’s Global Drought Observatory.

In the winter of 2022/2023, the European Alps had 63% less snowfall than usual.

And farmers aren’t the only ones affected. This water shortage also raises concerns for residential and industrial users. But given the quantities of water required by agriculture, it’s inevitable that farmers will face restrictions.

In France, for example, summer agricultural irrigation accounts for up to 80% of water consumption – yet for the country as a whole, 9 of the past 12 months have seen up to 85% less rainfall than normal. Meanwhile, Spain has officially been in drought since January 2022 and has now pushed through laws to reduce agricultural water usage by 40%.

9 of the past 12 months have seen up to 85% less rainfall than normal.

So, if drought becomes the ‘new normal’ for Europe, what can its farmers do to try to maintain both yields and quality?

Reduce Stress

Farmers can greatly enhance their crop resilience against drought stress by taking proactive measures. Drought stress is a significant abiotic factor. When a plant experiences environmental stress, it uses various mechanisms to mitigate the effect. For example, it will decrease its transpiration rate and close the stomata, the tiny pores on the underside of the leaf. But for all this does to reduce water loss and maintain plant turgidity, there’s a knock-on effect: a marked decrease in the uptake and movement of plant nutrients, impeding plant growth and curtailing crop productivity.

Irrigation, of course, should prevent crops from reaching a state of drought stress. But that’s no good for farmers who have to reduce their irrigation frequencies or volumes.

Use Optimal Fertilization

There’s another option, however. Use foliar fertilization to complement regular fertilization and help plants cope with drought. Let’s look at how the components of NPK fertilizers benefit plants and how complementary foliar fertilizers can be beneficial in a drought situation.

Farmers Prepare for Another Drought

Phosphorus (P)

Research shows that under water-limited conditions, P enhances early root growth, better equipping plants to withstand drought. Phosphorus has also been shown to improve water-use efficiency in wheat plants exposed to mild water deficit. But phosphorus needs plentiful moisture in the soil if it is to be absorbed in usable quantities by crop roots, so when soil is moisture-deficient, P absorption from the soil falls. Foliar application of P provides an effective alternative method for P uptake.

Potassium (K)

Potassium increases both root weight and length. A high root density is critical for water extraction from deeper in the soil profile, while better root structures within the soil also help reduce moisture loss in general. Meanwhile, in the leaf, high potassium concentrations help maintain leaf turgor; the nutrient also plays a significant role in the opening and closing of leaf stomata and the photosynthetic rate.

Nitrogen (N)

Then there’s nitrogen. Foliar-applied nitrogen increases the photosynthetic rate in crops, including maize and wheat, under water-stress conditions. It also increases cell numbers and their size while increasing photosynthetic efficiency.

Tools to Mitigate Drought

So, using foliar fertilizers such as ICL’s Agroleaf or Nutrivant to complement conventional fertilization can be valuable in helping crop establishment and the development of deeper root systems which can help crops to make the best use of the limited soil moisture.