For hundreds of years, Hungary was considered to be the granary of Europe, but over the past decades, the countries of Southern and Western Europe have been the major cereal producers. However, trends already show that North-eastern Europe may be the winner of the present changes: the growth of cereal yields there surpasses the values measured in other regions of the continent. The researchers of Corvinus, ELTE and BME universities analysed the data of the World Bank, and identified two radical shifts in the areas of European cereal production: a shift to the North and a shift to the East. At their intersection, in the north eastern part of Europe, the low sensitivity of cereal production to climatic changes is coupled with excellent economic growth rates, and provides the highest growth in average yields on the continent.
Climate change results in higher yields in the north
The driver behind the changes in cereal production in the north is global warming, which has shifted growing harvested areas and average yields to the north over the past decades. Because of the warming climate, farmers started to grow maize in northern countries like Denmark, too, where this was previously unseen. At the same time, the harvested area of this cereal, together with wheat, dropped to half in Italy and to two-thirds in Greece. In Portugal, the production of both cereals has been almost fully terminated. The study notes: the January-March temperature that has been growing since the nineties has had a major positive impact on wheat production in the area ranging from the Northern Balkan to Northern Europe, and this at least partly compensates for the negative impacts of summer warming up. However, the major negative impact of maximum temperatures from July to August on the production of maize kept growing: while in the nineties it affected only 23% of the maize production in Europe, by the middle of the 2010s, almost the whole continent (94%) was affected.
For the European agriculture, adaptation to climate change has become a top priority by now, especially the enhanced ability to adapt to heatwaves. In Eastern Europe, over the past decades, tens of millions of hectares of fertile soils have suffered catastrophic erosion because of droughts, diminishing freshwater supplies and soil degradation due to poor land management in industrialized agriculture.
Increased yields in the east owing to economic development
The other major finding of the study is that the technological convergence of Eastern and Central European agriculture pulls the centre of gravity of European cereal production from the west to the east, where a dumping of cereals has occurred. Another factor contributing to the high cereal production potential of Eastern Europe is the fact that the most fertile top soils (chernozems and the so-called mollisol soils of grasslands) cover vast areas in this region, and these are able to mitigate the extremities associated with the continental climate that characterizes Central and Eastern Europe.
The highest growth in maize production was achieved by Lithuania (385%) and Belarus (213%), while wheat production increased most in Latvia (92%), Estonia (87%) and Lithuania (86%) in 1993-1997 and 2013-2017. Poland and Russia – which used to be traditional maize importers – have become major exporters. Ukraine and Russia have found a place among the ten world-leaders in maize production in the past three decades. In 2013-2017, the Ukrainian maize harvest of 27 million tons per year was almost double of that of France, formerly the leading maize producer in Europe.
The importance of peace and rational social structure
The leading role of North-eastern Europe in cereal production is, in fact, not a novelty. This agrarian system implies the restoration of the arrangement established by the ancient Greeks almost two and a half thousand years ago, the two pillars of which were a food surplus in the plains surrounding the Black Sea Basin and food demand in the Mediterranean Region. The enforcement of this structure was blocked only by the economic and social anomalies that appeared in the affected regions, such as the Russian-Ottoman wars in the 18th century, the World Wars or the communist regime in the 20th century that worked irrationally from economic point of view.
„The present Russian invasion against Ukraine threatens not only this thousand-year structure, but global food security, too”, says one of the authors of the study, Attila Jámbor, Head of the Institute for the Development of Enterprises of the Corvinus University of Budapest. The region may play an important role in organising the export routes of Ukrainian cereal supplies, helping the mitigation of the unfolding food crisis, too. Another question, however, is how much the region is able to utilise the above possibilities in the short and long terms, he added.
The analysis was published in the scientific journal titled Scientific Reports, belonging to the Nature Portfolio, and the research behind the publication was financed by the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund. The authors of the study are Zsolt Pinke, researcher of the Department of Physical Geography of Eötvös Lóránd University, Attila Jámbor, Head of the Institute for the Development of Enterprises of the Corvinus University of Budapest, the research group of the Department of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, under the leadership of Balázs Decsi, and Zoltán Kern of the Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences, Institute for Geological and Geochemical Research, operating in the ELTE network.
Link to the study: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-10670-6