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CLIMATE CRISIS

Italy’s risotto rice fields decimated by worst drought in decades

The biggest rice-growing area in Italy has dried out, devastating the agricultural sector and leading to fears of a shortage of arborio and carnaroli rice in Europe.

Italy's risotto rice fields decimated by worst drought in decades
Italy's worst drought in 70 years is devastating rice fields and other crops in northern Italy with estimated losses of over 30 percent of the harvest. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

The roar of Dario Vicini’s motorcycle cuts through the silence as he drives across his rice paddy to survey the destruction wrought by Italy’s worst drought in 70 years.

His fields are nothing but desolation, with rice stems slowly dying in the sandy ground.

“Under normal circumstances, I would never have been able to ride my motorcycle over the field,” Vicini explained to AFP. 

“At this time of year, the plants would be up to my knees and the rice field would be flooded,” he said.

“Here, they’re tiny, because the water needed to irrigate them has never arrived.” 

READ ALSO: Drought in Italy: What water use restrictions are in place and where?

Vicini’s “Stella” farm, located in the village of Zeme in the Po Valley, 70 kilometres southwest of Milan, is part of Italy’s “golden triangle” of rice paddies.

Italy supplies half of the European Union’s rice, and this is the country’s predominant rice-growing area, stretching west from Pavia in Lombardy to Vercelli and Novara in Piedmont.

Vicini said the area’s last “decent rain” came in December.

Farmer Dario Vicini crosses his rice field on motorbike to see the extent of the damage caused by the drought, in Zeme, northern Italy. Photo by Brigitte HAGEMANN / AFP

“It’s the fault of climate change,” said the 58-year-old farmer, who estimates his income has fallen by 80 to 90 percent.

Enrico Sedino, another farmer in the area, is even more worried: “If there’s no more water, I can lose up to 100 percent of my turnover,” he said.

Around the rice paddies, cracks are visible in the parched earth and the feeble, stunted rice shoots are covered with a thin layer of dust.

The small irrigation canals that run alongside the fields are dry, or nearly so. 

The waters of the Po River – Italy’s longest river whose flat drainage basin is the wide, fertile plain perfect for growing rice – are this year at a historically low level not seen since 1952.

The water, when it comes, arrives in dribs and drabs.

fish skeleton on dried-up Po River in Italy

This photo taken on July 5, 2022, show a dead fish skeleton on the river bank of the Po River at Polesella village, near Rovigo city, in the region of Veneto, amid the worst drought to affect northern Italy’s rivers in 70 years. (Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP)

Zeme Mayor Massimo Saronni, a rice farmer himself for three decades, said that not only is the harvest suffering “but the whole ecosystem is withering away”.

Before, the rice paddies resounded with the song of crickets and the croaking of frogs, while clouds of dragonflies flittered above the fields. Freshwater birds like grey herons and white ibises fed on insects.

Now, “being in the countryside with such a heavy silence, it’s depressing, you feel like you’re on the moon!” he said. 

Vicini’s 50 hectares are irrigated through the Cavour Canal, which carries the waters of the Po, while other rice paddies in the Pavia region are fed by Lake Maggiore or Lake Como.

But regional authorities have warned that those lakes’ reserves could run out by the end of July.

Early this month, Italy’s national government declared a state of emergency in five regions — Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont — four of which are supplied by the Po.

Farmers are forced to abandon some fields to deal with others. “just like the doctor who during the Covid-19 pandemic chose those with a chance of being saved,” Saronni noted, bitterly.

The Po’s historically low water levels have had catastrophic consequences for Italy’s more than 4,000 rice farms, spread over 220,000 hectares (543,630 acres).

READ ALSO:

Sixty percent of the 1.5 million tonnes of rice produced in Italy each year are exported. Among the more than 200 varieties are the famous Carnaroli, Arborio, Roma and Baldo brands, essential for the preparation of typical
risotto dishes.

Rice consumption rose in 2020 when millions of Italians were forced by the coronavirus lockdown to cook at home.

But now, the country risks a rice shortage, warned Stefano Greppi, president of Pavia’s branch of Italy’s agricultural association Coldiretti.

“The situation is desperate, not to say apocalyptic,” said the rice farmer, estimating the economic damage as “incalculable… millions of millions of euros”.

“If there is no harvest this year, there is a risk that many companies will close down or go bankrupt”.

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PROTESTS

Climate activists throw paint at Milan’s La Scala ahead of opening night

Environmental activists hurled paint at the entrance of Milan's famed La Scala opera house on Wednesday in the latest a series of recent protests to focus attention on climate change.

Climate activists throw paint at Milan's La Scala ahead of opening night

The early morning protest came ahead of the gala opening of the new season on Wednesday night, with a scheduled performance of Russian-language opera ‘Boris Godunov’.

Five climate activists from the Last Generation (Ultima Generazione) protest group threw buckets of paint onto the facade of the building and inside the portico shortly after 7.30am, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.

Two people unfurled banners reading “Last Generation – No Gas and No Carbon”.

“We decided to stain La Scala with paint to ask the politicians who will attend the performance tonight to pull their heads out of the sand and intervene to save the population,” wrote Last Generation in a statement.

READ ALSO: Why are climate protesters glueing themselves to Italian artworks?

Police quickly arrived on the scene – where bright pink, electric blue and turquoise paint had splattered onto the sidewalk – and the activists were detained and taken away in police cars.

A team of cleaners from La Scala then began hosing off the building and the non-permanent paint appeared to have been entirely removed.

‘Last Generation’ activists outside La Scala on Wednesday. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

Last Generation said they were calling on Italy’s government to invest more in renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions.

“In order to avert the misery of its own people and safeguard people, homes and businesses, which are at risk from increasingly frequent floods and heatwaves, the government must act now,” it said, referring to last month’s landslide caused by torrential rains on the island of Ischia that killed 12 people.

Most recently, climate activists have targeted artworks inside museums throughout Europe in protests they say are designed not to damage the works but to focus attention on environmental disaster.

They have targeted masterpieces such as the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Johannes Vermeer at The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum, Klimt’s ‘Death and Life’ in Vienna’s Leopold Museum, and Van Gogh’s ‘The Sower’, displayed at Rome’s Palazzo Bonaparte, hurling soup or other food at the paintings behind glass.

Last month at an exhibit in Milan, they covered a car repainted by Andy Warhol with flour.

Police officers detain environmental activists after they threw paint at the facade of the La Scala theatre. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

La Scala’s opening night gala is expected to be attended by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, President Sergio Mattarella and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

In light of the war in Ukraine, the choice of “Boris Godunov” – an opera sung in Russian that tells the story of an autocratic ruler and his people – was controversial.

Ukraine’s consul in Milan had protested the choice, calling it a propaganda coup for Russia.

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